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If your income is enough to warrant a higher tax bracket, it's possible that you'll be required to make estimated tax payments. Whether this is your first year making these payments or not, you'll need a reliable method of determining the amount you pay so that you avoid Internal Revenue Service (IRS) penalties for underpayment.

The easiest way to steer clear of those penalties is to follow the IRS's safe harbor rule. In general, as long as your total estimated tax payments equal at least 90 percent of what you owe for the year or 100 percent of the total tax you paid the previous year (whichever is smaller) you're safe from the penalty. Or, if your adjusted gross income is above $150,000 — or $75,000 if you're married and filing separately — you must pay 110 percent of the previous year's tax bill to avoid the underpayment penalty.

Typically, you won't incur a penalty if you owe less than $1,000 in taxes after subtracting the amount of your withholding and estimated tax payments on your annual tax return.

Here's what else you need to know if you are new to making estimated tax payments or if you've previously paid estimated taxes but your income changes significantly.

Who Pays Estimated Taxes?

The IRS expects to collect federal income taxes as you earn or receive income. That's why employees have a portion of each paycheck withheld for taxes. But if you're a company owner, your quarterly estimated tax payments serve the same pay-as-you-go purpose.

You may also have to pay estimated taxes if:

  • Your spouse is self-employed
  • You have other income not subject to withholding like interest, dividends, rent or alimony
  • You employ a nanny for whom you pay federal payroll taxes
  • You have additional sources of income that you didn't account for when you filled out your W-4 for the current year

Quarterly tax payments are ordinarily due on the 15th of April, June, September and January. If one of those dates falls on a Saturday, Sunday or legal holiday, the payment will be on time if you make it on the next business day. The next payment deadlines for the tax year are April 17, 2018; June 15, 2018; September 17, 2018; and January 15, 2019.

Calculating the Amount

The tricky part about estimating this income is that it can often vary from year to year and even quarter to quarter. You can apply the safe harbor rule as described above, but if you have any reason to expect your income to change drastically, you may want to be more exact about the formula you use. While you can use the included worksheet on IRS Form 1040-ES to determine estimated tax, it might be wiser to consult your tax planner for assistance with this calculation.

The general rule is to divide your total estimated tax by four and make four equal payments on each due date. But you can adjust the payments to account for bumps or drops during the year that indicate your original income prediction is off. That way, you can avoid the tax penalty for underpaying or owing a large lump sum at the end of the year if your income — and tax obligation — greatly increases. If you're expecting to owe less in taxes because your income is lower than you predicted, you'll get a refund when you file your annual return. But by lowering your remaining quarterly payments ahead of time, you won't have to wait for that money.

Figuring out your estimated tax payments when your income is subject to change may seem like a risky prediction. But by following these tips you can make it less likely you will get hit with a penalty for guessing wrong.

This information and recommendations contained herein is compiled from sources deemed reliable, but is not represented to be accurate or complete. In providing this information, neither KeyBank nor its affiliates are acting as your agent or is offering any tax, accounting, or legal advice.

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