Understanding Federal Tax Tables & Income Tax Brackets


Section 3 of the Internal Revenue Code directs the IRS to publish IRS tax tables annually for individuals. The tables include rates, a range of personal income under each rate as well as an estimated taxable income.

The tables allow taxpayers to estimate their liability without making computations. The tax tables for each year’s 1040 are published in a booklet (2020 income tax tables can be found here). The tables contain very narrow ranges of taxable income so that you can arrive at an amount that is as precise as possible.

The IRS tax tables provide estimates for income under $100,000 and a worksheet for incomes above that. Of course, our software will always automatically calculate the exact liability so estimating is not required.

The federal tax system is progressive through various brackets. A bracket is a range of incomes separated from other ranges and given a certain percentage tax rate. For ordinary income, there are seven brackets, each tied to a rate (percentage): 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%. Tax rates increase as income increases. A range of income, from a base amount to a ceiling amount, falls within each income tax bracket. The range varies, depending on filing status (single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, or head of household).

For example, a single taxpayer’s rates for tax year 2020 (for tax returns that were due, without extension, on April 15, 2021) are as follows:

  • Income up to $9,875 is in the 10% bracket
  • $9,876 to $40,125 is 12%
  • $40,126 to $85,525 is 22%
  • $85,526 to $163,300 is 24%
  • $163,301 to $207,350 is 32%
  • $207,351 to $518,400 is 35%
  • Income of $518,401 or more is 37%

The tax rates for each bracket are derived from section 1 of the Internal Revenue Code, but are adjusted for inflation each year. The inflation adjustment is designed to prevent “bracket creep,” in which taxpayers would be pushed into higher brackets because of inflation rather than increases in their income levels.

Marginal and Effective Rates

Not all taxpayer income is subject to the rate in which their income tax bracket falls. For example, if a single filer's income falls between $40,126 and $85,525 (22% bracket), only the amount over $40,126 is taxed at the 22% rate. The first $9,875 this individual earns is taxed at 10%, the next $30,249 is taxed at 12%. Just the income over $40,126 is taxed at 22%. To calculate this, you would use the following formula:

  • Income between $0 to $9,875 you pay 10% or $987.50.
  • Income between $9,876 to $40,125 you pay 12% and add $987.50 to it (because $987.50 is 10% of $9,875).
  • Income between $40,126 to $85,525 you pay 22% add add $4,617.38 to it (because $4,617.38 is $932.50 plus 12% of $30,249, which is the difference between $40,125 and $9,876).

Only the last dollar of income determines the bracket into which a taxpayer falls. Someone making $40,000 annually pays roughly $4,800 or 12% of their income. This is their effective tax rate, where the last rate which they are taxed (25%) is their marginal rate.

Confusion about marginal and effective rates is the reason people are sometimes reluctant to move into a higher income tax bracket. The reluctance is largely misplaced. Suppose a taxpayer is given a raise from $40,000 annually to $45,000. If all of this income were taxed at the marginal rate, then this taxpayers after-tax situation would barely change since they are moving from the 12% bracket into the 22% bracket. Fortunately, for all taxpayers only the income within the new bracket is taxed at the 22% rate.

Capital Gains Rates

The federal taxation of "capital gains" (see more here) is also progressive.

The tax rates on short-term capital gains (gains from the sale of investments or assets held for one year or less) are the same as the rates for ordinary income. Short-term capital gains run through the brackets in the same way that ordinary income does in the examples above.

Generally, long-term capital gains (gains from the sale of investments held for more than one year) fall into three brackets, but these three brackets are tied to the seven brackets for ordinary income (and short-term capital gain).

  • A taxpayer in either the 10% or 12% ordinary-income brackets pays 0% long-term capital-gains.
  • In the 22%, 24%, 32%, or 35% brackets pays 15% long-term capital-gains.
  • In the 37% bracket pays 20% long-term capital gains.

States may also impose their own capital gains rates.

Quiz: Test Your Federal Tax Table Knowledge

Federal tax brackets can sometimes be difficult to understand. Test your knowledge with this short quiz:

True or False: Your filing status can change your tax rate. Answer
True. There are different rates for those filing as single, as the head of household, as married filing jointly, and as married filing separately. For example, the income limits for tax brackets are larger when married filing jointly compared to filing single.
True or False: A taxpayer's tax bracket determines the precise rate that they pay each year. Answer
False. As a taxpayer's income rises so does the top rate at which they are taxed (this is referred to as a progressive tax system), however, only the income that falls within a particular tax bracket's limits are taxed at that top rate. Depending on the income earned, a taxpayer could be taxed at a number of different rates.

True or False: When you earn more, you pay more. Answer
True (in most case). As a general rule, this is true. However, there are exceptions to this rule. For example, if additional income is earned from means other than wages such as dividends or long-term capital gains, it is taxed at a different rate than ordinary income.

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