Q&A: 401(k) payouts and Social Security

Dear Liz: I was laid off from my job in late 2021 and at 62 was unable to find employment. After six months of unemployment benefits, I filed for Social Security. My 401(k) account from my previous employer was rolled into a traditional IRA. I also took a distribution to carry me through the months without unemployment and to repay a 401(k) loan I used as the downpayment on my home. I was taxed on the total amount of rollover funds, as well as on the distribution, which seems like I paid tax twice. All told, it looks like I made a lot of money in 2022. How will this affect my Social Security benefits going forward?

Answer: You don’t have to pay tax on the 401(k) funds that were rolled into the traditional IRA. If you’ve already done so, please consult a tax pro immediately about filing an amended return to get that money back.

You may have been confused by the 1099-R tax form issued by your 401(k) provider, which reported the entire amount that left your 401(k) account as a distribution. But only the amount that didn’t make it into the IRA is considered taxable.

The taxable distribution isn’t considered earned income that would trigger the earnings test. (The earnings test applies to people receiving Social Security before their full retirement age, currently ages 66 to 67. The test causes $1 to be withheld for every $2 earned over a certain limit, which is $21,240 in 2023.)

But distributions can cause more of your Social Security benefit to be taxable. Taxes on Social Security are based on a unique formula known as “combined income,” which includes your adjusted gross income plus any nontaxable interest and half your Social Security benefits.

If you’re a single filer and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your benefits. If your combined income is more than $34,000, up to 85% of your benefits may be taxable. Married couples filing jointly may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of benefits if their combined income is between $32,000 and $44,000. If their combined income is more than $44,000, they could owe tax on up to 85% of their benefits.

Keep in mind that you don’t lose 50% to 85% of your benefit to taxes. That’s the proportion that is subject to tax.

A tax pro can help you estimate the effect of future distributions and calculate how much you may need to withhold to avoid penalties.