Understanding California Personal Income Tax

Everthing you need to know about tax rates, deductions, and credits

Cyclists at Santa Monica, California, USA
Cultura Travel/Mark Webster/ The image bank

California's income tax system differs from federal tax law in many ways. Unfortunately, this means that many of your federal deductions may be limited or disallowed in California.  But the Golden State does have some of its own deductions and many credits that you may benefit from.

Income Exempt from California Income Tax

Certain types of income are exempt from income tax in California (some of which are taxed on your federal return).

 Income that is exempt in California includes:

  • Social security and railroad retirement benefits (however, all other private, state, local, and federal pensions are fully taxed)
  • Interest earned on federal bonds
  • State income tax refunds
  • Distributions from a health savings account (HSA)
  • Unemployment compensation
  • Paid family/maternity leave (which is taxed on your federal return)
  • California state lottery winnings

Income Taxed in California That Is Not Taxed Federally

There are also types of income that you will have to pay taxes on in California that are not taxed on your federal return, such as:

  • Your Cash for Clunkers rebate:  if your rebate was greater than the cost of the vehicle you will have a capital gain in California.
  • Interest earned on municipal (state and local) bonds from outside of California is taxable.

California Deductions

There are several federal deductions that California does not allow, including deductions for contributions to a health savings account (HSA); adoption expenses; federal estate taxes; expenses of teachers, principals, etc.; qualified higher education expenses; and state, local, or foreign income taxes paid.

Also, the amount of other federal deductions such as IRA contributions and charitable giving are limited in California.  

If you take the standard deduction, you cannot increase your California standard deduction for property taxes, taxes on the purchase of a new car or disaster losses, as you may have on your federal return.



But there is some light at the end of the tunnel. California has a few additional deductions of their own:

  • Interest on loans from utility companies: a deduction for interest paid or incurred by a public utility company financed loan that is used to purchase and install energy efficient equipment or products.
  • The deduction for medical expenses follows the federal deductibility rules. You can only deduct the portion of your medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of your federal AGI. California differs from federal law in that they allow a deduction for the medical expenses of a registered domestic partner and the partner's dependents.

Tax Rates

California income tax rates vary from year to year and are levied on California residents’ income and non-residents’ income from California sources. California also charges a mental health surcharge (in addition to the regular tax rate) for residents with incomes over $1 million.

California Tax Credits

Tax credits are deducted directly from your tax due, which can sometimes make them more valuable than deductions.

 California's income tax credits include:

  • Exemption Credit: a credit each for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. If you are blind or over 65 you can claim an extra credit.
  • Renters Credit: a $60 credit for single renters whose income falls below a certain amount (the figure varies from year to year) and $120 credit married/registered domestic partner (RDP) filing jointly taxpayers whose income falls below a certain amount.
  • Child/Dependent Care Credit: a percentage of the federal credit is allowed for qualified child/dependent care expenses. This credit is refundable.
  • Joint Custody Head of Household Credit: taxpayers who are single or married/RDP filing separately who have a child may qualify for a credit.

    Filing Your Return

    Forms can be found on the California Franchise Tax Board (FTB) website and returns must be postmarked by April 15.  

    The FTB lists free web-based tax preparation services on their website. Those who meet eligibility criteria can also choose to use the state’s free online return preparation tools known as ReadyReturn and CalFile. Both of these tools can be accessed on the FTB's website and are free of charge.