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FICA and Withholding: Everything You Need to Know

Updated for Tax Year 2021 / October 16, 2021 11:11 AM


In order to ensure you're filing your taxes correctly, it's crucial to understand everything that goes into them and how your money is affected with each paycheck. For starters, what exactly is FICA and what does it mean to have withholdings?

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As you prepare your taxes and review your W-2 and pay stubs, you've likely seen the terms "FICA" and "withholding." But do you know what they mean and how they affect your annual taxes?

What is FICA?

FICA stands for the Federal Insurance Contributions Act. It's the federal law that requires employers to pay and withhold certain taxes from the wages they pay employees.

FICA mandates that three separate taxes be withheld from an employee's gross earnings:

  • 6.2% Social Security tax, withheld from the first $142,800 an employee makes in 2021.
  • 1.45% Medicare tax, withheld on all of an employee’s wages.
  • 0.9% Medicare surtax withheld on single filer employee wages over $200,000 per calendar year (over $250,000 for joint filers).

How does FICA impact you?

Almost all American workers are required to pay into FICA. These taxes contribute to those currently receiving funds from Social Security benefits for

  • retirees,
  • survivors (surviving spouses or minor children of workers who have died) and
  • disabled workers.

FICA taxes also go to Medicare programs that fund older and certain disabled Americans' health care costs. When you're old enough, FICA funds collected from those still in the workforce will pay your benefits.

What is withholding?

A tax withholding is the amount an employer takes out of an employee's wages or paycheck to pay to the government. In addition to the FICA withholdings listed above, other employer tax withholdings often include:

  • Federal income taxes
  • State income taxes (in most states)
  • Local income taxes (in some cities and counties)
  • Other taxes such as disability insurance taxes (in some states)

What determines how much my employer sets aside for FICA and other tax withholding?

The amount your employer sets aside for FICA is based on percentages set by the federal government. As for federal, state and local income taxes, the amount your employer withholds will usually depend upon the information you provided when filling out your W-4 Form or a similar state or local form.

  • Most likely, you completed your W-4 Form upon starting your job.
  • On that form, you listed your marital status, tax credits and deductions, and perhaps other income that can affect the amount of tax you need to have withheld from your paycheck.
  • Your employer uses your answers from your W-4 Form to determine how much to withhold.

The more tax deductions and credits you claim, the less money your employer will withhold from your paycheck. So, it's important to make sure you accurately fill out your W-4 Form and that you update your information on that form when needed.

Not sure how much to withhold? Use our W-4 Calculator to help you determine how to boost your refund or your take home pay. You can fill out an updated form and submit it to your employer at any time.

How does your tax bracket impact how much FICA is withheld?

Your tax bracket doesn't necessarily affect how much money you contribute to FICA. However, you'll pay an additional 0.9% of your salary toward Medicare if you earn over

  • $200,000 per calendar year (for single filers) or
  • $250,000 per calendar year (for joint filers).

This is often called the "Additional Medicare Tax" or "Medicare Surtax."  In 2021, it’s also important to keep in mind that only the first $142,800 of earnings is subject to the Social Security part of the FICA tax.

How does FICA work for those who are self-employed?

Self-employed workers and independent contractors pay both the employer and employee contributions for FICA. This is mandated by the Self-Employment Contributions Act (SECA). You can use Schedule SE (Form 1040) to figure out how much tax is due on your self-employment net earnings.

The total contribution amounts taken from net earnings are:

  • 12.4% Social Security tax: This amount is withheld from the first $142,800 an employee makes in 2021.
  • 2.9% Medicare tax.
  • 0.9% Medicare surtax: For single filers earning more than $200,000 per calendar year or joint filers earning more than $250,000 per calendar year.

Self-employed workers will pay self-employment tax (SECA) based on the net income from their business, which is calculated using form Schedule SE. The Social Security Administration uses your historical Social Security earnings record to determine your benefits under the social security program.

Who doesn't have to pay into FICA taxes?

Just about everyone contributes to FICA and withholdings. The major exemptions from FICA include:

  • Civilian federal government employees hired before 1984.
  • Around 25% of state and local government employees with certain pension plans.
  • Some on-campus college student employees.
  • Some workers in the country with certain types of non-immigrant visa status.

How does FICA impact your Social Security and Medicare benefits in retirement?

The amount of money you'll receive in monthly Social Security benefits when you retire is based on a formula that looks at the average you earned during the 35 years in which you earned the most money. You can use the Social Security Administration's calculator to estimate your benefits.

  • Several things will affect your benefits like how much your spouse earned, if your spouse has passed away, and if you got divorced.
  • The money you contribute to FICA won't directly impact how much you receive in Social Security benefits nor how much you'll pay for Medicare coverage.

FICA and withholding taxes are important to understand so you know where your money is going. Although the amount you contribute to FICA is determined by the government, you do have some control over other withholdings based on your W-4 Form answers. You can also keep your hard-earned money in your pocket by making sure you don't miss any tax deductions.

Remember, with TurboTax, we'll ask you simple questions about your life and help you fill out all the right tax forms. Whether you have a simple or complex tax situation, we've got you covered. Feel confident doing your own taxes.

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