Most people who are approved for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits will receive "back pay" from Social Security. Because virtually every Social Security office in the country has a substantial backlog of disability cases, it takes many months to receive your first disability payment after filing an application.
The good news is that Social Security will pay you back benefits or "back pay" for most or all of the months that you've waited. This amount is paid in a lump sum, and it can be substantial.
SSDI backpay can make your income in the year you receive it higher than it should be, so you might owe more taxes because of it. But part of the backpay might actually have been income for the year before you received it, or even two years back.
Many people wonder about the tax implications of receiving this lump sum. Is it taxable income? Can it bump me into a higher tax bracket? Can I apply the back payments to prior years' income if I'm receiving payments accrued over multiple years? Do I have to amend prior years' returns to do this?
Social Security and the IRS do allow you to attribute part of the back pay to prior years, if you know how to do it. And making some of the back pay not count as income for the current tax year makes it less likely that you'll owe taxes at all (more on this below).
(Note that taxation isn't an issue for SSI backpay, because large amounts are paid in three small installments six months apart and because SSI isn't federally taxable.)
Here are a few things to keep in mind when filing your taxes after receiving a lump-sum back payment from Social Security.
SSDI benefits are taxable, so while you might have to pay taxes on a small portion of your lump-sum payment from Social Security (more on this below), the IRS doesn't penalize disability beneficiaries for receiving past-due benefits all in one year. The IRS allows you to apportion past-due benefits to previous years, lowering or eliminating the taxable amount of their lump sum per year, without having to file amended tax returns.
Social Security sends beneficiaries a form called the SSA-1099, Social Security Statement, each year they receive benefits. If you're receiving this form for the first time, it will state in Box 3 the total amount of benefits you were paid for the current tax year. And in the "Description of Amount in Box 3" area, each year will be listed separately alongside the total amount of benefits payable as income for that year.
Rather than requiring you to file amended returns for those years, the IRS allows you to handle it all on your current tax return, using prior years' income amounts. This method, called a "lump-sum election," is discussed in IRS Publication 915, Social Security and Equivalent Railroad Retirement Benefits.
While IRS Publication 915 provides a way to calculate how much of your lump-sum payment is taxable, the formula is highly technical and confusing for the majority of people. We recommend that you contact a tax professional or purchase tax prep software to assist you in filing your taxes after you receive your lump-sum back payment from Social Security. While these options aren't free, they could help you avoid overpaying your taxes by a much larger amount.
Whether you'll owe federal income tax while receiving Social Security disability depends on whether you file individually or jointly and how much "provisional income" you report. Provisional income includes just half of your Social Security disability benefits and, if you have any, the rest of your adjusted gross income (AGI) and any tax-exempt interest you earned.
If disability benefits are your only source of income, you'll almost certainly not owe any federal income tax. But if you're filing as an individual with provisional income between $25,000 and $34,000, up to 50% of your disability benefits are considered taxable income. If you have provisional income over $34,000, 85% of your benefits are taxable.
If you're married filing jointly and have a combined income over $32,000, up to 50% of your disability benefits are taxable. Combined income over $44,000 will cause up to 85% of your disability benefits to be taxable.
Remember that the 50% and 85% figures refer to the amount of income that is taxable, not your marginal tax rates. Any disability income that is taxable will be taxed at your ordinary marginal rate (which, for most people, is between 10% and 28%).
Of course, you could owe state taxes on your disability back pay, but most states don't tax Social Security disability benefits. About a dozen states do tax benefits, however, either the same way as the feds or only if you make over a certain amount of adjusted gross income. For information about your particular state, see our article on state taxation of Social Security disability benefits.
Each year only a fraction of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) recipients owe federal income taxes, usually because a spouse is working or the recipient has passive income from rental properties or investments. As for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), because of the SSI income limits, almost no SSI beneficiaries earn enough to owe income tax. As a result, Social Security doesn't automatically withhold any of your disability lump-sum amount, or any of your monthly disability check, for tax purposes.
However, if you anticipate having to pay federal income taxes on your disability payments and wish to avoid owing a large amount when you file your taxes, you can set up Voluntary Tax Withholding (VTW) through IRS Form W-4V. (Notice that Line 6 of the form allows you to withhold only 7%, 10%, 15%, or 25% of your monthly benefit.)
Once completed, send this form to your local Social Security office. However, you should really consult a tax professional before setting up VTW, as tax withholding is unnecessary in most cases.
Most lawyers who handle Social Security disability cases charge a standard fee of 25% of your past-due benefits, with a cap of $7,200. (The fee may work somewhat differently if your case goes to the Appeals Council or requires multiple hearings.) If you win your disability claim, Social Security will pay the attorney fee directly to your lawyer, and you'll receive the remainder.
If some of your lump sum turns out to be taxable, you can deduct the fee paid to your attorney from your disability benefit income, but only on a "pro rata" basis. For example, if 40% of your lump-sum payment was counted as taxable income, you may deduct 40% of your attorney's fee from that amount.
You list this deduction on Schedule A of your return, under miscellaneous deductions. Note that you must file an itemized return to claim this deduction, and you can deduct only the amount that exceeds 2% of your adjusted gross income.
If you had to repay private long-term disability payments to an insurance company with your SSDI back pay, you may also be able to deduct that amount from your SSDI income, or get a tax credit, for that amount. Talk to a tax professional about your options.
Learn more about how much disability backpay you'll receive.
Updated January 31, 2023
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