Huge Number of Americans in for a Majorly ‘Unpleasant’ Tax Surprise

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Only about 1 in 4 American taxpayers has updated their withholding since the IRS released the new W-4 in December 2019, resulting in 45% of Americans not knowing how much tax is withheld from their pay, according to a new study by the American Institute of CPAs. The study, which polled 2,028 adults online from October 1 to October 5, found that 37% of American taxpayers admit they aren’t even familiar with the W-4, including 11% who say they’ve never heard of it.

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“There have been a number of changes to withholdings over the past three years and we’ve found that many Americans haven’t been making adjustments accordingly. Inaccurate withholding can lead to an unpleasant surprise come Tax Day,” Gregory J. Anton, CPA, CGMA, chairman of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, said in a statement. “And with many individuals in a financially precarious position, it’s more important than ever to understand how withholding impacts your cash flow and overall financial situation.”

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The study also notes that in the past three years, 19% of tax-filing Americans claim to have received an unusually large tax bill, and of these, 39% were extremely surprised.

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However, it is possible to take action now and avoid surprises come Tax Day 2021: The IRS has a free Tax Withholding Estimator, which enables Americans to get a general idea of whether to expect a refund or plan for a bill. Complicating the matter this year, there are many new factors to take into consideration, including the increased number of people who filed for unemployment – which the federal government taxes as ordinary income – for the first time due to the pandemic.

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“Tax Day doesn’t have to be a surprise. With better planning, a tax bill can be predictable,” Kim Hardy, CPA, member of the AICPA’s National CPA Financial Literacy Commission, said in a statement. “If you haven’t done so already, the end of the year is a great opportunity to review your current withholding and start 2021 off right. If you know ahead of time that you will owe when you file, you put a plan in place and budget accordingly.

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About the Author

Yaël Bizouati-Kennedy is a former full-time financial journalist and has written for several publications, including Dow Jones, The Financial Times Group, Bloomberg and Business Insider. She also worked as a vice president/senior content writer for major NYC-based financial companies, including New York Life and MSCI. Yaël is now freelancing and most recently, she co-authored  the book “Blockchain for Medical Research: Accelerating Trust in Healthcare,” with Dr. Sean Manion. (CRC Press, April 2020) She holds two master’s degrees, including one in Journalism from New York University and one in Russian Studies from Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France.

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