Is your W-2 tax form less than your salary?

Every direct employee of a company should receive a W-2 form in January. The W-2 is the base document that defines your tax obligations, so it is important that you review and understand yours. However, some people are confused by some of the form's numbers — for example, why the wage listed on a W-2 form does not always match their salary — and simply fill in the information from each box into their tax forms without giving it a thorough review to verify that the information is correct.

42 PHOTOS
States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes
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States where Americans pay the highest in state income taxes

California

State income tax: 1% to 13.3% 

Maine

State income tax: 5.8% to 10.15%

Oregon

State income tax: 5% to 9.9%

Minnesota

State income tax: 5.35% to 9.85%

Iowa

State income tax: 0.36% to 8.98%

New Jersey

State income tax: 1.4% to 8.97%

Vermont

State income tax: 3.55% to 8.95%

Washington, DC

State income tax: 4% to 8.95%

New York

State income tax: 4% to 8.82%

Hawaii

State income tax: 1.4% to 8.25%

Wisconsin

State income tax: 4% to 7.65%

Idaho

State income tax: 1.6% to 7.4%

South Carolina

State income tax: 0% to 7%

Connecticut

State income tax: 3% to 6.99%

Arkansas

State income tax: 0.9% to 6.9%

Montana

State income tax: 1% to 6.9%

Nebraska

State income tax: 2.46% to 6.84%

Delaware

State income tax: 2.2% to 6.6%

West Virginia

State income tax: 3% to 6.5%

Georgia

State income tax: 1% to 6%

Kentucky

State income tax: 2% to 6%

Louisiana

State income tax: 2% to 6%

Missouri

State income tax: 1.5% to 6%

Rhode Island

State income tax: 3.75% to 5.99%

Maryland

State income tax: 2% to 5.75%

North Carolina

State income tax: 5.75%

Virginia

State income tax: 2% to 5.75%

Oklahoma

State income tax: 0.5% to 5.25%

Massachusetts

State income tax: 5.1%

Alabama

State income tax: 2% to 5%

Mississippi

State income tax: 3% to 5%

Utah

State income tax: 5%

Ohio

State income tax: 0.495% to 4.997%

New Mexico

State income tax: 1.7% to 4.9%

Colorado

State income tax: 4.63%

Kansas

State income tax: 2.7% to 4.6%

Arizona

State income tax: 2.59% to 4.54%

Michigan

State income tax: 4.25%

Illinois

State income tax: 3.75%

Indiana

State income tax: 3.3%

Pennsylvania

State income tax: 3.07%

North Dakota

State income tax: 1.1% to 2.9%

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Employers can and do make mistakes on W-2s, and these errors can cost you money as well as time and effort to correct downstream tax ramifications. Let's take a look at the W-2 form in a bit more detail.

Understanding Your W-2 Tax Forms

First, verify the pertinent baseline information in the spaces labeled with letters, namely your Social Security number and both addresses (yours and your employer's). Assuming that's correct, look at the block of eight boxes in the upper right-hand corner labeled 1 to 6. Boxes 1, 3, and 5 list the collective income that is used as the baseline to apply different taxes. The amounts of those taxes are placed in the corresponding columns to the right (2, 4, and 6).

It's possible that all three of the income boxes do not match your overall salary, or that the three income boxes do not match each other. That is not unusual at all, and here's why.

First, the amount in box 1 represents your taxable income, which may be lower than your salary. Not all of your salary is necessarily subject to tax right away. If you contributed to a company 401(k) program, that portion of your salary is tax-deferred until the time you draw it out (hopefully at retirement). If it were considered as taxable income now, you would be subject to double taxation.

Similarly, if you have health insurance through your company, your part of the premium is paid using pre-tax dollars and your taxable income is reduced by that amount. Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA's) used for health care costs and transportation reimbursement accounts represent other sources of pre-tax funding that reduce your taxable income. Finally, any non-taxable reimbursements (like mileage costs) that are applied to your paycheck do not show up in your taxable income, since you are being reimbursed for expenses that you paid for with your own post-tax money.

In summary, income in box 1 excludes your elective contributions to retirement plans, pre-tax benefits, or payroll deductions.

Why do boxes 3 and 5 differ from box 1? Because both Social Security and Medicare taxes are calculated differently from federal taxes, and thresholds and limits apply. Income for Social Security purposes includes payroll deductions, but Social Security taxes only apply to the first $128,400 of gross earnings for tax year 2018. Therefore, for low wage earners, box 3 is often higher than box 1, and for high wage earners, box 3 is often lower than box 1.

52 PHOTOS
Average tax refund in every U.S. state
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Average tax refund in every U.S. state

Texas

Average refund: $3,206

Number of refunds: 10,087,693

Total income tax refunded: $32.3 billion

Louisiana

Average refund: $3,115

Number of refunds: 1,611,412

Total income tax refunded: $5 billion

Connecticut

Average refund: $3,099

Number of refunds: 1,396,609

Total income tax refunded: $4.3 billion

Oklahoma

Average refund: $3,098

Number of refunds: 1,300,577

Total income tax refunded: $4 billion

New York

Average refund: $3,059

Number of refunds: 7,712,210

Total income tax refunded: $23.6 billion

New Jersey

Average refund: $3,013

Number of refunds: 3,479,321

Total income tax refunded: $10.5 billion

Wyoming

Average refund: $2,989

Number of refunds: 214,649

Total income tax refunded: $641.6 million

North Dakota 

Average refund: $2,983

Number of refunds: 277,422

Total income tax refunded: $827.4 million

Florida

Average refund: $2,933

Number of refunds: 7,854,538

Total income tax refunded: $23 billion

Mississippi

Average refund: $2,922

Number of refunds: 1,018,429

Total income tax refunded: $2.97 billion

California

Average refund: $2,911

Number of refunds: 13,594,703

Total income tax refunded: $39.5 billion

Washington D.C.

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 277,399

Total income tax refunded: $804.5 million

Illinois

Average refund: $2,900

Number of refunds: 4,973,653

Total income tax refunded: $14.4 billion

Maryland

Average refund: $2,861

Number of refunds: 2,329,288

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Massachusetts

Average refund: $2,850

Number of refunds: 2,704,250

Total income tax refunded: $7.7 billion

Alaska

Average refund: $2,843

Number of refunds: 276,887

Total income tax refunded: $787 million

Nevada

Average refund: $2,830

Number of refunds: 1,111,952

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

Georgia

Average refund: $2,832

Number of refunds: 3,606,774

Total income tax refunded: $10.2 billion

Alabama

Average refund: $2,802

Number of refunds: 1,650,125

Total income tax refunded: $4.6 billion

Virginia

Average refund: $2,771

Number of refunds: 3,129,030

Total income tax refunded: $8.7 billion

Arkansas

Average refund: $2,759

Number of refunds: 989,288

Total income tax refunded: $2.7 billion

Tennessee

Average refund: $2,726

Number of refunds: 2,465,816

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Utah

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 1,033,141

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

Washington

Average refund: $2,681

Number of refunds: 2,749,362

Total income tax refunded: $7.4 billion

Arizona

Average refund: $2,672

Number of refunds: 2,244,925

Total income tax refunded: $6 billion

Kansas

Average refund: $2,665

Number of refunds: 1,044,275

Total income tax refunded: $2.8 billion

New Mexico 

Average refund: $2,657

Number of refunds: 724,549

Total income tax refunded: $1.9 billion

South Dakota

Average refund: $2,651

Number of refunds: 321,372

Total income tax refunded: $852 million

West Virginia

Average refund: $2,649

Number of refunds: 649,049

Total income tax refunded: $1.7 billion

Kentucky

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 1,590,274

Total income tax refunded: $4.2 billion

Delaware

Average refund: $2,648

Number of refunds: 365,749

Total income tax refunded: $968.4 million

Rhode Island

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 436,490

Total income tax refunded: $1.1 billion

Pennsylvania

Average refund: $2,643

Number of refunds: 5,071,264

Total income tax refunded: $13.4 billion

Colorado

Average refund: $2,636

Number of refunds: 2,014,233

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

North Carolina

Average refund: $2,629

Number of refunds: 3,580,471

Total income tax refunded: $9.4 billion

Nebraska

Average refund: $2,615

Number of refunds: 711,103

Total income tax refunded: $1.8 billion

Indiana

Average refund: $2,612

Number of refunds: 2,577,994

Total income tax refunded: $6.7 billion

Iowa

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 1,141,151

Total income tax refunded: $3 billion

New Hampshire

Average refund: $2,602

Number of refunds: 558,359

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Missouri

Average refund: $2,601

Number of refunds: 2,220,029

Total income tax refunded: $5.7 billion

South Carolina

Average refund: $2,569

Number of refunds: 1,719,299

Total income tax refunded: $4.4 billion

Hawaii

Average refund: $2,564

Number of refunds: 535,763

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Michigan

Average refund: $2,560

Number of refunds: 3,776,668

Total income tax refunded: $9.7 billion

Ohio

Average refund: $2,517

Number of refunds: 4,570,589

Total income tax refunded: $11.5 billion

Minnesota

Average refund: $2,516

Number of refunds: 2,112,212

Total income tax refunded: $5.3 billion

Idaho

Average refund: $2,457

Number of refunds: 561,133

Total income tax refunded: $1.4 billion

Wisconsin

Average refund: $2,436

Number of refunds: 2,236,886

Total income tax refunded: $5.4 billion

Montana

Average refund: $2,401

Number of refunds: 372,817

Total income tax refunded: $895 million

Oregon

Average refund: $2,398

Number of refunds: 1,431,924

Total income tax refunded: $3.4 billion

Vermont

Average refund: $2,392

Number of refunds: 254,192

Total income tax refunded: $608 million

Maine

Average refund: $2,336

Number of refunds: 509,896

Total income tax refunded: $1.2 billion

Average tax refund by state
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Income for Medicare taxes (box 5) generally includes taxable benefits and does not include pre-tax deductions, nor does this income have a cap like Social Security. Usually, box 5 is the highest value of the three income boxes.

Tips and allocated tips, respectively found in boxes 7 and 8, are tips that you reported to your employer (like cash tips for servers) and tips the employer allocated to you (like server tips included in the credit card bill). These are considered as part of your taxable wages, so make sure that it is correct — and remember, if you didn't report tips to your employer, you are still obligated to report them to the IRS.

Box 10 includes any benefits paid to you under dependent care assistance below $5,000. That amount is non-taxable. Excess benefits will be lumped into boxes 1, 3, and 5 as taxable income.

Boxes 12 and 13 are a confusing mix of codes that outline other categories of income, benefits, and deductions that are not categorized above. For more details on these codes, see the IRS website.

Box 14 is used to report anything that doesn't fit in any other sections of the W-2, such as health insurance premiums deducted, state disability insurance taxes withheld, non-taxable income, and union dues. Boxes 15 to 20 cover your state and local tax obligations, and the corresponding income values.

What happens if you find a mistake on your W-2? Start by bringing it to the attention of your employer. They should issue you a correct W-2 straightaway. If for some reason they refuse to do so, you can contact the IRS and they will contact the employer on your behalf.

Should your employer fail to get a corrected W-2 to you in time to file your taxes, use substitute Form 4852 in your submission. Form 4852 requires you to estimate the information used in a W-2, but if you have your last pay stub for the tax year, most of the relevant information should be there. Check the IRS website for further details on how to proceed.

Don't just take your W-2s for granted. Take the time to understand them and review them. In the case of an error, you will be very glad that you did.

Failing to pay your taxes or a penalty you owe could negatively impact your credit score. If you would like to monitor your credit to prevent identity theft and see your credit reports and scores, join MoneyTips

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