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Seven ways Americans pay taxes

12:34 PM, Jan 4, 2014   |    comments
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USA TODAY - As Americans across the country rang in the new year, many were unaware that, at midnight, more than 50 different tax breaks expired. According to the Tax Foundation, among them were credits for everything from building motorsports facilities, producing biofuels, conducting business research and development, and even training a mine rescue team.

Clearly, the U.S. tax system can be very complex. Understanding the basics, especially the different types of taxes you may face, can be a valuable tool in financial planning.

Not all taxes are paid at the same time. Some, for example, are deducted from your paycheck. "Generally, three types of taxes will show up on a worker's pay stub: federal income taxes, payroll taxes (Social Security and Medicare), and state income taxes," Andrew Lundeen, manager of federal projects at the Tax Foundation, told 24/7 Wall St.

Other taxes, however, are levied at the register. State and local governments collect sales taxes on individual goods and services. Similarly, governments charge excise taxes on specific items, including gasoline and cigarettes.

Not all authorities levy the same types of taxes. Income taxes serve as the largest source of revenue for the federal government, accounting for over 40% of yearly tax revenue. And according to projections from the Congressional Budget Office, income taxes, as well as social insurance taxes, should continue to account for the bulk of the U.S. government's tax revenue going forward.

At the state level, the picture is a bit more mixed. Different states use different tax structures to raise money for the various services they provide. While some states rely heavily on income taxes, others depend primarily on sales or property taxes. A few states, including Florida and Texas, have no personal income tax. Others "follow a structure similar to the federal [tax] code, but with different brackets and much lower rates," explained Lundeen.

Counties, cities, and other local areas often levy taxes to raise money as well. Property taxes, Lundeen noted, "are generally charged at the local level in order to pay for services such as schools, police and fire departments, and parks." Similarly, localities often charge an additional sales tax.

Not all taxes apply to everyone. The federal estate tax, often the subject of controversy, applies only after death and only if the estate is worth $5.34 million or more. Also, you may be able to avoid paying a number of excise taxes if you do not smoke, drink, or gamble. However, some excise taxes may be harder to avoid, including those levied on cell phone services, hotel stays, and gasoline purchases, according to Lundeen.

Here are seven ways Americans pay taxes.

1. Income taxes

Income taxes can be charged at the federal, state and local levels. At the federal level, the amount paid depends on a number of factors, including income and marital status. Lundeen noted the U.S. has a progressive tax system, consisting of seven tax brackets. He added, "for each additional dollar in a new bracket, you pay that bracket's tax rate." There are also a number of credits. For one, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) gives a tax credit to low and moderate earners.

State income tax structures vary considerably. Some states, such as Florida, do not levy an income tax at all. A few states use a single income tax rate, while many states apply different tax rates depending on income.

2. Sales taxes

Sales taxes are taxes on goods and services purchased. These are usually calculated as a percentage of the price paid. Sales taxes vary by state, and even by municipality. In some states, there are no sales taxes at either the state or local level. Other states and local authorities can charge a hefty amount. In Tennessee, for example, consumers can pay as much as 9.44% in sales taxes when combining state and local taxes, according to the Tax Foundation. In 12 states, sales taxes are higher than 8%. Sales taxes are often considered to be regressive, meaning lower-income individuals and households spend a greater proportion of their earnings to pay the tax, compared to higher income residents.

3. Excise taxes

Excise taxes are similar to broad sales taxes, except they are charged on specific goods. States typically tax certain purchases, including gas, cigarettes, beer and liquor. Excise taxes are frequently levied on so-called "sin products," and often are intended not only to help raise money, but also to deter unhealthy behaviors. The federal government also collects such taxes, including 18.4 cents per gallon on gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon on diesel fuel, as well as a 10% charge for tanning services. Excise taxes are often combined with sales taxes on a single purchase. According to Lundeen, in many cases a sales tax is paid on top of an excise tax.

4. Payroll taxes

Both employees and employers have to pay the Social Security tax, one of two payroll taxes. For the Social Security tax, employees pay 6.2% of their wages, and employers match that for a total contribution of 12.4%. In 2013, the maximum earnings subject to the tax were $117,000. In 2011 and 2012, the amount employees had to contribute briefly declined to 4.2% of wages, as part of a payroll tax holiday designed to encourage people to spend more and boost the U.S. economy.

A similar tax also exists for Medicare. Both employees and employers are required to contribute 1.45% of wages, or 2.9% in total, to fund the program. Unlike Social Security, there is no maximum taxable wage. In fact, since last year, workers who earned more than $200,000 had to contribute an extra 0.9% of their wages to the program.

5. Property taxes

Property taxes are usually imposed to fund local services. According to the Tax Foundation's Lundeen, these taxes are based on the property's market value, and are most often levied on real estate, but can also apply to other property, such as cars. In many instances, these taxes are deductible. However, according to the IRS, property taxes on real estate are only deductible if they are used to promote the "general public welfare," but not if they are used "for local benefits and improvements that increase the value of the property." Many homeowners also qualify for a mortgage interest deduction.

6. Estate taxes

The IRS defines an estate tax as "a tax on your right to transfer property at your death." The estate tax is controversial, as it is seen by some as a penalty for dying. Cash, securities, insurance, real estate, and business interests are among the items considered part of an estate. However, for individuals, only estates exceeding $5.34 million are taxed by the federal government. Most Americans, therefore, are exempt from paying the federal estate tax. The highest estate tax rate charged at the federal level is 40%.

Estate taxes are also often levied at the state level. While states frequently use lower rates, they also often have lower exemptions than the federal government's $5.34 million cutoff. Some states have an inheritance tax, where the rate you pay depends on your relation to the deceased.

7. Gift taxes

The gift tax is similar to the estate tax, in that it is a tax on transferring wealth. One important difference is that gift taxes involve two living people, Lundeen added. The federal government also has a far lower exemption level for the gift tax than it does for the estate tax. All gifts over $14,000 are taxable, with the tax to be paid by the recipient. The highest gift tax rate is 40% of the taxable gift amount. This tax applies not only to cash, but also to gifts like company shares or cars. Last year, Minnesota became the second state to implement its own gift tax, following Connecticut.

(Copyright © 2014 USA TODAY)

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