Jobless? Uncle Sam Still Taxes Your Unemployment Benefits

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The economic recovery has left millions of Americans behind, struggling to find jobs and leaving millions unemployed for extended periods of time. Yet as April 15 approaches, many unemployed people discover that the Internal Revenue Service wants its share of the meager unemployment benefits that they've received.

How Unemployment Benefits Get Taxed

Most benefits you receive from being out of work are subject to federal income tax as unemployment compensation. The IRS defines unemployment compensation as including money you get either from the federal government or from various state governments under unemployment-insurance laws, which includes the most common forms of unemployment benefits for the vast majority of recipients. In addition to general state and federal unemployment insurance, more specialized benefits like those under railroad unemployment rules also get treated as taxable income.

For the most part, even though benefits are subject to federal income tax, you don't have to pay additional taxes like Social Security or Medicare withholding. But some unemployed people get additional assistance from private funds that their employers contribute to on their behalf. In those cases, not only are the benefits taxable, but you might even have to pay additional withholding taxes and treat them the same way that wages and salaries get handled.

On the other hand, other people have jobs at which they themselves make voluntary contributions to private funds that pay benefits to unemployed workers. If you receive benefits from that type of fund, then you only pay tax on the amount you receive that exceeds what you contributed to that private fund.

Why Does the IRS Tax Unemployment Benefits?

The rationale for including unemployment benefits as taxable income is that they're meant to replace wage income that you'd earn if you actually had a job. As a result, if you're getting unemployment in lieu of working, then the IRS believes it makes sense to treat those benefits the same way it would treat your salary, wages, and tips.

%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Yet in other areas of the tax laws, the IRS doesn't treat unemployment benefits the same way. For instance, if you want to contribute to a Individual Retirement Account or something similar, you need to have what the IRS calls earned income. Earned income includes wages and salaries, but it explicitly excludes unemployment compensation. Moreover, several states, including California, New Jersey, and Virginia, exempt unemployment benefits from state income tax laws.

Nevertheless, despite some of these inconsistencies, it doesn't change the fact that you need to prepare to give the IRS its share of your unemployment check.

What to Watch For

One thing to check is whether you've had taxes already withheld from your unemployment benefits before you receive them. If you completed a voluntary withholding request on Form W-4V when you signed up for benefits, then the 1099-G tax form that you'll get should have both the total unemployment benefits you received and tax you've paid. Be sure to include that tax in the payments line on your tax return to get proper credit.

On the other hand, many people run don't have enough tax withheld. If that's the case, then you might owe even more to the IRS in interest and penalties. To avoid that problem in future years, many unemployed people must pay quarterly estimated taxes and spread out their tax payments throughout the year.

You can follow Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+.
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