Understanding the U.S. Tax Withholding System

Income taxes weren't always withheld from people's paychecks. In fact, income tax withholding is a relatively recent development. Before 1943, taxes were only withheld in spurts when the government needed to raise extra revenue. This article explains how we arrived at the current system that takes income taxes out of your paycheck and how this withholding process works.

Key Takeaways

  • Withholding tax is income tax collected from wages when an employer pays an employee.
  • The beginnings of withholding tax date back to 1862, when it was used to help fund the Civil War.
  • Employees complete IRS Form W-4 to determine how much the employer should withhold from each paycheck.
  • Staying informed about withholding amounts and resubmitting W-4s as needed can help individuals make better personal finance decisions.

The Development of the Tax Withholding System

Tax withholding first occurred in 1862 under President Abraham Lincoln for the purpose of helping to finance the Civil War. The federal government also implemented a plethora of excise taxes for the same purpose.

But in 1872, not only was tax withholding abolished, but the income tax was repealed entirely.

After the ratification of the 16th Amendment in 1913, income tax became permanent. However, withholding laws were repealed in 1917 after widespread criticism. That's because collecting income taxes from employees imposed a large burden on employers by placing them in the role of tax collector in addition to the role of business owner.

This time, it would be only 18 years before tax withholding resurfaced. After the Social Security Act passed in 1935, Social Security taxes were withheld by employers. This change paved the way for income taxes to be withheld again starting in 1943 with Congress' approval of the Current Tax Payment Act. Once again, war expenses were used as justification for tax withholding.

As the writer and intellectual Randolph Bourne noted in the early 20th century, "War is the health of the state." Not only were taxes to be withheld again, but a massive tax hike was enacted. Income tax went from being a tax that was paid only by a few high-earning Americans to one that was paid by both the rich and the common man. The government wasn't sure it could successfully collect the higher taxes from its citizens without withholding at the source.

The 1943 tax withholding system was developed in part by the famous economist Milton Friedman, who then worked for the Tax Research Division of the Treasury. While he never apologized for his role, Friedman later said that he wished it hadn’t been necessary to institute withholding. Nevertheless, the system has stuck ever since, and few remember a time before tax withholding.

How Does Tax Withholding Work?

In the early days of the income tax, when there was no withholding, people paid their full income tax bills for the previous year once a year on March 15, or in quarterly installments.

Under today's tax withholding system, taxes are collected at the source. This means wage earners never see the money they owe in taxes. It's taken by their employers out of their paychecks and transmitted directly to the federal government.

The amount of income tax withheld from each paycheck depends on how an employee fills out IRS Form W-4. This form is not submitted to the government—it is only used by the employee and the employer to determine how much tax to withhold.

Form W-4 includes a worksheet to help taxpayers determine their withholdings based on the number of jobs they hold, marital status, and number of dependents. It doesn't really matter how this form is filled out as long as it results in at least 90% of the tax ultimately due in April being withheld from the employee's paychecks throughout the year. If less than 90% is withheld, taxpayers are subject to penalties and fines.

Under the current withholding system, each April, people either pay the remainder of what they owe or, if too much tax has been withheld, get a refund. Social Security and Medicare taxes are also withheld from every paycheck.

With today's system, only the wages earned by employees are subject to withholding for the most part. There are many other ways of earning income, however. For example, independent contractors aren't subject to withholding, and neither is the income earned by investors.

The 90% rule still applies, but individuals are responsible for calculating and remitting their own tax payments on a quarterly basis.

To make sure you have an adequate amount of tax withheld, use the withholding calculator at the IRS website and, if needed, submit a new W-4 to your employer to change your withholding amount.

Special Considerations

An exception to this rule arises if an individual becomes subject to backup withholding. If a taxpayer hasn't paid taxes in the past, or the name and Social Security number reported don't match, independent contractor and investment income (and some other uncommon categories of income) become subject to backup withholding at a rate of 24%. This situation is rare, though, because most Americans are exempt from backup withholding.

The federal withholding system provides the model used by 42 states to withhold state income taxes. Eight states—Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming—don't have a state income tax. Some states use IRS Form W-4 (such as Colorado), while others (such as California) have their own withholding worksheets.

Form W-4 doesn't give taxpayers a way to actually see how much income will be withheld from each paycheck. A good way to get a clear picture of how claiming different numbers of exemptions on Form W-4 will affect your income tax withholding is to use an online calculator such as the one provided by the IRS.

The Bottom Line

Most of us take the tax withholding system for granted, but it's not really a given. It has come and gone over the years with the government's desire to finance expensive projects and wars, and in response to the reactions of taxpayers to the system. Understanding how the system works can help you make informed decisions about your personal finances.

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  18. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 505: Tax Withholding and Estimated Tax," Pages 13-14.

  19. Tax Foundation. "State Individual Income Tax Rates and Brackets for 2021."

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  21. Colorado Department of Revenue. "Colorado Income Tax Withholding Tables for Employers," Page 4.