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Estimated Taxes: How to Determine What to Pay and When

Written by a TurboTax Expert • Reviewed by a TurboTax CPAUpdated for Tax Year 2023 • March 29, 2024 12:53 PM
OVERVIEW

We'll make it easy for you to figure out if you have to pay estimated taxes and if so, how much.

 

Key Takeaways

  • If you expect to owe more than $1,000 in federal taxes for the tax year, you may need to make estimated quarterly tax payments using Form 1040-ES, or else face a penalty for underpayment.
  • If your federal income tax withholding (plus any timely estimated taxes you paid) amounts to at least 90 percent of the total tax that you will owe for this tax year, or at least 100 percent of the total tax on your previous year's return (110 percent for AGIs greater than $75,000 for single and separate filers and $150,000 for married filing joint), you most likely will not need to make estimated tax payments.
  • If you don't calculate and pay your first estimated payment until after April 15, when the first quarterly payment is typically due, then you will need to make your payments as soon as you can to “catch up" but you might still have a penalty.

Figuring when and how to pay

If you're an employee, your employer typically withholds taxes from every paycheck and sends the money to the IRS, and probably to your state government as well. This way you pay your income taxes as you go. And, if you're like most wage earners, you get a nice refund at tax time.

But if you are self-employed, or if you have income other than your employment wages, you may need to pay estimated taxes each quarter. You may owe estimated taxes if you receive income that isn't subject to withholding, such as:

  • Interest income
  • Dividends
  • Gains from sales of stock or other assets
  • Earnings from a business
  • Alimony that is taxable

Do I need to pay estimated taxes?

This depends on your situation. The rule is that you must pay your taxes as you go throughout the year through withholding or making estimated tax payments.

If at filing time, you have not paid enough income taxes through withholding or quarterly estimated payments, you may have to pay a penalty for underpayment.

To determine whether you need to make quarterly estimates, answer these questions:

  1. Will you owe less than $1,000 in taxes for the tax year after subtracting your federal income tax withholding from the total amount of tax you expect to owe this year? If so, you're safe—you don't need to make estimated tax payments.
  2. Do you expect your federal income tax withholding to amount to at least 90 percent of the total tax that you will owe for this tax year? If so, then you're in the clear, and you don't need to make estimated tax payments.
  3. Do you expect that your income tax withholding will be at least 100 percent of the total tax on your previous year's return? Or, if your adjusted gross income (2023 Form 1040, line 11) on your tax return was over $150,000 ($75,000 if you're married and file separately), do you expect that your income tax withholding will be at least 110 percent of the total tax for the previous year? If so, then you're not required to make estimated tax payments.

If you answered "no" to all of these questions, you must make estimated tax payments using Form 1040-ES. To avoid a penalty, your total tax payments (estimated taxes plus withholding) during the year must satisfy one of the requirements we just covered.

Which option should I choose?

That depends on your situation.

The safest option to avoid an underpayment penalty is to aim for "100 percent of your previous year's taxes." If your previous year's adjusted gross income was more than $150,000 (or $75,000 for those who are married and filing separate returns last year), you will have to pay in 110 percent of your previous year's taxes to satisfy the "safe-harbor" requirement. If you satisfy this test, you won't have to pay an estimated tax penalty, no matter how much tax you owe with your tax return.

If you expect your income this year to be less than last year and you don't want to pay more taxes than you think you will owe at year end, you can choose to pay 90 percent of your current year tax bill. If the total of your estimated payments and withholding add up to less than 90 percent of what you owe, you may face an underpayment penalty. So you may want to avoid cutting your payments too close to the 90 percent mark to give yourself a safety net.

If you expect your income this year to be more than your income last year and you don't want to end up owing any taxes when you file your return, then make enough estimated tax payments to pay 100 percent of your current year income tax liability.

TurboTax Tip:

If you expect your income this year to be less than last year and you don't want to pay more taxes than you think you will owe at year end, you can choose to pay 90 percent of your estimated current year tax bill rather than 100 percent (or 110 percent depending on AGI) of your prior year tax bill.

How should I figure what I owe?

You need to come up with a good estimate of the income and deductions you will report on your federal tax return.

You can use TurboTax tax preparation software to do the calculations for you, or get a copy of the worksheet accompanying Form 1040-ES and work your way through it. Either way, you'll need some items so you can plan what your estimated tax payments should be:

  • Your previous year's return. Use your previous year's federal tax return as a check to make sure you include all the income and deductions you expect to take on your current year's tax return. You should also look at the total tax you paid if you are going to base your estimated tax payments on 100 or 110 percent of your previous year's taxes.
  • Your record of any estimated tax payments and withholding you've already made for the year. You need to take those payments into account when you determine how much tax you still owe, so have your check register and latest paystub handy to look up the amounts and the dates you paid.

Consider paying with your refund

If you think that you will owe money when you file your next year's taxes, one easy way to get a jump on paying your bill is to apply your tax refund to your next year's taxes. If you won't have federal income tax withheld from wages, or if you have other income and your withholding will not be enough to cover your tax bill, you probably need to make quarterly estimated tax payments. Having all or part of your overpayment applied to your estimated taxes is a relatively painless way to take care of at least some of what you owe for coming year.

What if I don't pay?

You could end up owing the IRS an underpayment penalty in addition to the taxes that you owe. The penalty will depend on how much you owe and how long you have owed it to the IRS.

Result: You might have to write a larger check to the IRS when you file your return.

Should I pay in equal amounts?

Usually, you pay your estimated tax payments in four equal installments. But you might end up with unequal payments in some circumstances:

  • If you had your previous year's overpayment credited to your current year's estimated tax payments
  • If you don't figure your estimated payments until after April 15 when the first one is typically due
  • If you unexpectedly make a lot of money in one quarter

Example:

You calculate that you need to pay $10,000 in estimated taxes throughout the year, and you don't make your first payment until June 15 (when the second estimate is due), so your first payment will be $5,000. Your September payment and your January payment will be $2,500 each. However, you may still owe an underpayment penalty for the first quarter because the first payment wasn't made by the April 15 deadline.

For fishermen and farmers

You have special criteria to meet, but you may end up paying less in estimated taxes. You're considered a qualified farmer or fisherman if you earn more than two thirds of your taxable gross income from farming or commercial fishing.

If you're not sure you qualify, or how this all works, TurboTax can help you figure your taxable gross income and what fishing and farming income you can include as qualified income.

Let a local tax expert matched to your unique situation get your taxes done 100% right with TurboTax Live Full Service. Your expert will uncover industry-specific deductions for more tax breaks and file your taxes for you. Backed by our Full Service Guarantee.

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The above article is intended to provide generalized financial information designed to educate a broad segment of the public; it does not give personalized tax, investment, legal, or other business and professional advice. Before taking any action, you should always seek the assistance of a professional who knows your particular situation for advice on taxes, your investments, the law, or any other business and professional matters that affect you and/or your business.

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