The W-4 tax withholding form has been used by individual taxpayers for decades to calculate their tax withholdings. It is based, however, on the faulty assumption that most U.S. workers have a single source of income. This assumption has caused millions of taxpayers to incur unnecessary tax debt. The formula for calculating federal income tax withholding for employees routinely under-withholds for low-income workers who have multiple sources of income because, without substantial documentation and calculation by the employee, employers withhold as if they are the employee’s single source of income. Taxpayers may therefore see their income tax withheld at too low a marginal rate, oftentimes zero percent, and can have significant balances due on short notice at the end of the tax year.
This Note documents that reality and proposes a solution. It proposes a reconception of the Form W-4 and the withholding formula through the lens of low-income filers and aims for a policy of over-withholding from those filers in order to reduce surprise tax due and related penalties. The proposed solution removes the bias towards achieving a “zero refund” from the form design by eliminating the tax-free threshold—for most filers, the equivalent of their standard deduction—from the withholding scheme. As discussed in the Note, the proposed policy would also have the benefit of increasing tax compliance, minimizing bureaucratic burdens, and providing a revenue-neutral solution for the government. This Note further suggests an extension of the proposed policy to provide a much-needed savings mechanism for low-income filers.
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Copyright (c) 2021 Susannah Kroeber