There's a lot of uncertainty about taxes right now. The incoming Trump administration is looking to change the way Americans pay taxes dramatically, and a Republican Congress might successfully push through major tax reform. Nevertheless, what's relatively certain is that the tax laws that govern the 2016 tax year are pretty much set. Below, we'll help you figure out how much tax you're likely to owe for 2016 when you file your returns in the next few months.
Step 1: Add up your income
The first thing you need to do to figure out how much tax you'll owe is to calculate your total income. That includes wages and salaries, as well as investment income, taxable distributions from retirement accounts, gains on the sale of property, business or farm income, and a wide variety of other miscellaneous items that pay you money. Add all those things together, and you'll have the starting point from which to determine how much tax you'll owe.
Step 2: Subtract permitted deductions
Fortunately, there are a number of different ways you can reduce your gross income in determining your taxable income. Some deductions are available regardless of whether you itemize deductions. For instance, most taxpayers can deduct permitted moving expenses, traditional IRA and health savings account contributions, and student loan interest even if they take a standard deduction as well. These items are referred to as adjustments to income, and when you subtract them out, what you're left with is adjusted gross income or AGI.
Further reductions from AGI are available to calculate taxable income. These include either the standard deduction or itemized deductions, as well as personal exemptions for yourself and your dependents. Once you've taken those out, what you're left with is taxable income.
Step 3: Calculate your tentative tax
Once you have taxable income, you can plug that number into either the tax tables or the tax brackets for the 2016 tax year. For instance, if you have $3,000 in taxable income, then the tax calculation will result in an answer of $300, because all of that income is included in the lowest 10% tax bracket.
Sometimes you'll need to use special worksheets to calculate your tentative tax. For instance, long-term capital gains and dividend income are subject to lower tax rates, and using the regular tax tables will give you an incorrect tax figure. You can also get help by using a tax calculator to figure your tentative tax.
Step 4: Subtract any tax credits from your tentative tax
Tax credits are more valuable than deductions because they reduce your tax bill dollar-for-dollar, rather than simply reducing your taxable income. Popular credits include the Earned Income Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the Child and Dependent Care Credit. However, there are a host of other credits that apply in specific situations that can also reduce your tax liability.
Step 5: Compare your final tax due to how much you had withheld from your paychecks
Lastly, take a look at the resulting net tax figure and compare it to the amount you had withheld from your paychecks to go toward federal taxes for 2016. You can find that figure on your W-2 form, and most paystubs also include the number. If your withholding was higher, then you'll get a refund. If your tax is higher, then you'll owe the difference. Either way, though, you'll have a better idea of what 2017 will bring when tax time gets closer.
Figuring out exactly how much tax you'll owe for 2016 takes a lot of time and effort, which is why preparing tax returns takes so long. By understanding these basic rules, however, you can get a good estimate of how much you'll owe in taxes and how to come up with the money to pay them when they come due.