Starting Jan. 1, 2020, the maximum earnings subject to the Social Security payroll tax will increase by $4,800 to $137,700—up from the $132,900 maximum for 2019, the Social Security Administration (SSA) announced Oct. 10. The SSA also posted a fact sheet summarizing the 2020 changes.
Additionally, the SSA announced that Social Security benefits for nearly 69 million Americans will increase 1.6 percent in 2020.
The taxable wage cap is subject to automatic adjustment each year based on increases in the national average wage.
About 178 million U.S. wage earners paid Social Security taxes this year. Roughly 6 percent of workers earn more than the current taxable maximum, according to the SSA.
|Payroll Taxes: Cap on |
|Type of Payroll Tax||2020 Max|
|2019 Max |
|Medicare||No limit||No limit|
|Source: Social Security Administration.|
Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes are collected together as the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) tax. FICA tax rates are statutorily set and can only be changed through new tax law.
Social Security is financed by a 12.4 percent payroll tax on wages up to the taxable earnings cap, with half (6.2 percent) paid by workers and the other half paid by employers. Self-employed workers pay the entire 12.4 percent.
For employers and employees, the Medicare payroll tax rate is a matching 1.45 percent on all earnings (self-employed workers pay the full 2.9 percent), bringing the total Social Security and Medicare payroll withholding rate for employers and employees to 7.65 percent—with only the Social Security portion limited to the taxable maximum amount.
|2019 FICA Rate (Social Security + Medicare Withholding)|
(6.2% + 1.45%)
(6.2% + 1.45%)
(12.4% + 2.9%)
Adjust Systems, Notify Employees
Employees whose compensation exceeds the 2019 maximum of $132,900 will see a decrease in net take-home pay if they don’t receive an annual raise to compensate for the payroll tax’s bigger bite.
By the start of the new year, U.S. employers should:
- Adjust their payroll systems to account for the higher taxable wage base under the Social Security payroll tax.
- Notify affected employees that more of their pay will be subject to payroll withholding.
- Take into account the increased taxes that must be paid for affected positions.
- Expect some pushback from employees who may want to be “made whole” for their share of the increased tax.
Additional Medicare Tax
The tax rates shown above do not include an additional 0.9 percent in Medicare taxes paid by highly compensated employees.
Under a provision of the Affordable Care Act, the employee-paid portion of the Medicare FICA tax is subject to the 0.9 percent additional Medicare tax on amounts over statutory thresholds that are not inflation-adjusted and thus apply to more employees each year.
The threshold annual compensation amounts that trigger the additional Medicare tax are:
- $250,000 for married taxpayers who file jointly.
- $125,000 for married taxpayers who file separately.
- $200,000 for single and all other taxpayers.
Additional Medicare tax withholding applies to wages and self-employment income in excess of the thresholds in a calendar year. These threshold amounts are not indexed for inflation.
This added tax raises the wage earner’s Medicare portion of FICA on compensation above the threshold amounts to 2.35 percent; the employer-paid portion of the Medicare tax on these amounts remains at 1.45 percent.
The additional Medicare tax should not be confused with the alternative minimum tax on high incomes, which does not involve mandatory payroll withholding. To learn more, see the IRS webpage Questions and Answers for the Additional Medicare Tax.
Social Security Earnings Test Limits
The SSA also announced upward adjustments in the Social Security earnings test limit. For those who collect Social Security retirement benefits before reaching their full retirement age, benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 they earn over the earnings limit.
For 2020, the earnings limit for workers who are younger than full retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954) will increase to $18,240 per year (meaning SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $2 earned over $18,240), up from $17,640 in 2019.
The earnings limit for people turning 66 in 2020 will increase to $48,600 (SSA deducts $1 from benefits for each $3 earned over $48,600 until the month the worker turns age 66), up from $46,920 in 2019.
There is no limit on earnings for workers who have reach or passed their full retirement age for the entire year.
‘Paycheck Checkups’ to Adjust Withholding
As the year ends, HR departments should remind employees, especially those with children and other dependents, to use the Tax Withholding Estimator on the IRS website to do a “paycheck checkup.” It’s especially important to use the estimator now if an employee:
- Incurred an unexpected tax bill or a penalty when filing this year.
- Has or will experience a change in marital status, dependents, income or jobs this year.
Employees who decide to change their withholding amounts should calculate the appropriate amounts, enter them on Form W-4, and submit the form to their HR or payroll departments so that paycheck adjustments can be made.
Employees can submit the current 2019 Form W-4 through the end of the year or wait until the new 2020 Form W-4 is finalized and released, likely in November. The new form is expected to include major revisions designed to make accurate income-tax withholding easier for employees.
By adjusting their withholding amounts, “taxpayers can ensure that the right amount is taken out of their pay throughout the year,” the IRS advised. “Having the correct amount withheld from paychecks helps to ensure that taxpayers don’t pay too much tax during the year—and that they have money upfront rather than waiting for a bigger refund after filing their tax return.”