Federal Withholding Tax vs. State Withholding Tax: An Overview

In simplest terms, withholding from your paychecks is an estimate of how much you'll owe in taxes at year's end based upon your level of income and other factors. That number is divided by the number of pay periods you have in a year, or in the case of hourly employees, by how many hours you work in a pay period.

If it's likely that you'll owe the government $10,000 and you're paid a weekly salary, $192.30 will be withheld from each of your paychecks and forwarded to the government on your behalf: $10,000 divided by 52.

There's very little difference between state and federal withholding taxes. The chief distinction is that state withholding is based on state-level taxable income, while federal withholding is based on federal taxable dollars. State withholding rules tend to vary among the states, while federal withholding rules are consistent everywhere throughout the United States.

Federal Withholding Tax

The modern tax withholding system was introduced in the 1940s to fund military operations during World War II. It expedited the tax collection process and made it much easier for governments to raise additional taxes without most taxpayers becoming aware of it.

Before the withholding system was put into place, income taxes were due at a certain time of year, originally in March. Taxpayers had to pay in full on that date. This made them keenly aware of their individual tax burden. When taxpayers have their taxes automatically deducted throughout the year through withholding, they don't feel the big bite all at once.

For most Americans, every paycheck has lines titled "federal taxes withheld" and "state taxes withheld." If you earn $1,000 in a paycheck, but the government withholds $250, you only get to take home $750. The government sends you a tax refund if you had more money withheld than you should have paid in taxes at the end of the year.

Employees provide their personal information, including marital status and number of exemptions, to employers on Form W-4. Employers then use these guidelines to determine withholding based on the amount of wages earned in that pay period. The idea is to get your withholdings as close as possible to what you'll ultimately owe at the end of the year in taxes so you won't owe anything more.

State Withholding Tax

Both state and local governments can impose withholding on wage income, but they can only do so based on their own tax rates. You can have both state and federal income taxes withheld, but you cannot have state taxes withheld and federal taxes withheld twice at both levels.

[Important: State withholding works the same way as federal withholding for income tax, but states have their own versions of Form W-4.]

Seven states do not have an income tax at all, so there's no withholding here: Alaska, Florida, Nevada, South Dakota, Texas, Washington, and Wyoming. New Hampshire and Tennessee don't have withholding, either, because these states tax only interest and dividend income, not wages.

Special Considerations

The federal government also withholds Social Security taxes at 6.2%, up to the annual wage base which is $132,900 in 2019. You do not have to pay Social Security on the income you earn above this threshold, and the rate is the same for all employees up to this income limit.

Medicare tax is withheld at a flat 1.45%, but if you earn more than $200,000, a .09% additional Medicare tax applies.

Employers must match Social Security and Medicare payments for an additional 7.65% paid to the federal government. Social Security and Medicare are not withheld at the state level.

Key Takeaways

  • States can only withhold amounts for their own income taxes, and not all states impose income taxes.
  • Virtually all U.S. citizens are subject to federal withholding unless they had no tax liability at all in the previous year and they don't expect a tax liability in the current year.
  • Social Security and Medicare taxes are only withheld at the federal level.