Losing a Job
You may not think of it as pay, but it is to Uncle Sam, who can lay claim to a portion of any severance or unemployment compensation you receive. Also taxable are payments from your former employer for any accumulated vacation or sick time, so be sure that enough taxes are withheld from these.
Watch for that final W-2 form from your former employer as well. The company isn’t required to send it to you right away, but must provide it by January 31 of the year after you leave the company—the same deadline as if you were still employed by the firm.
Unemployment benefits are considered taxable income and must be reported on your federal tax return. They are not necessarily taxed by your state. At the end of the year that you received the unemployment benefits, you'll receive a form 1099-G, reporting what you've been paid. You'll need this form when preparing your taxes.
For future payments, you have the option to have tax withheld from your unemployment checks, which can help you avoid having a large tax bill at tax time. Fill out Form W-4V to have 10 percent of your benefits withheld for federal income taxes. You can do this by typing your information directly on the form online, but then you need to make a copy and sign it. Send it to your state unemployment office.
If you leave your job, a federal law commonly known as COBRA (Consolidated Omnibus Budget and Reconciliation Act) requires your employer to let you stay on the company's policy for up to 18 months after you depart. (Note: The law doesn't cover firings for gross misconduct.)
If you're healthy, you may find cheaper premiums than what you'd spend on a COBRA policy. And if you get a high-deductible policy (at least $1,200 for an individual or $2,400 for a family), you may qualify to set up a health savings account (HSA), which lets you make tax deductible contributions and withdraw the money tax-free for qualified medical expenses.
Job-hunting costs are part of miscellaneous expenses reported on Schedule A of Form 1040. And miscellaneous expenses are deductible only to the extent that they exceed 2 percent of your Adjusted Gross Income.
Keep your hands out of that retirement cookie jar! If you lose your job, resist the temptation to dip into your 401(k) account. At any age, cashing in your 401(k) means paying tax on every dime you withdraw, unless you've made after-tax contributions. Even worse, if you’re under age 55 when you leave your employer and begin taking withdrawals, you’ll also be hit with a 10 percent tax penalty. And keep in mind that short-circuiting your retirement savings could be disastrous for your long-term financial health.
If you have more than $5,000 in your 401(k) account, you can leave your money with your former employer, where it will continue to grow. However, you may be better off transferring your 401(k) balance to an IRA, where you would have almost unlimited investment options, or to your new employer's 401(k) plan if it accepts rollovers.
Ask your former boss to send your retirement money directly to the new account. If you request that the money be paid to you, with the intention that you’ll personally deposit it into the new plan, the law requires your former plan sponsor to withhold 20 percent of your money for the IRS.
If part of your 401(k) is invested in your company’s stock, be sure to check out the special rules for net unrealized appreciation—a mouthful of a tax term that could save you money.
TurboTax will help you deal with tax issues related to losing a job—and help you get the biggest possible tax refund.