Hidden Gambling Tax Hits Retirees Hard

Woman with gambling winnings in Vegas - unaware of tax consequences.
••• Rob Melnychuk/Getty Images

Gambling losses do not impact your tax return nearly as much as gambling winnings. Losses only partially offset the tax effects of gambling winnings.

If you’re a regular gambler in retirement, this means your fun can cost you thousands more in taxes and increased Medicare Part B premiums each and every year. I call this the hidden gambling tax. 

Even a win of a few thousand can have unintended effects, costing you more in taxes than what you won - even if you have gambling losses to offset it.

Let’s take a look at how gambling winnings and losses impact the rest of your tax return by going through these four steps:

  1. Required reporting
  2. Treatment of gambling losses versus gains
  3. How gambling winnings affect your modified adjusted gross income
  4. How an increased modified adjusted gross income causes you to pay more tax

Required Reporting of Gambling Winnings

Casinos are required to report gambling winnings if they exceed a certain limit ($1,200 of slot machine winnings for example). Gambling winnings get reported on the first page of your tax return on line 21.

What amount of gambling winning must be reported? The​ ​IRS says all gambling winnings must be reported on your tax return, and if amounts exceed limits below they are reported on Form W-2G:

  • $1,200 or more at a slot machine or bingo game (amount not reduced by the amount of your wager)
  • $1,500 or more in keno winnings (amount can be reduced by the amount of your wager)
  • $5,000 or more in poker tournament winnings (amount can be reduced by the amount of your wager)
  • $600 or more on betting if that is at least 300 times your bet (amount can be reduced by the amount of your wager)

Treatment of Gambling Losses vs. Gains

Once you report gambling winnings, you can also then report gambling losses. Gambling losses get claimed as an itemized deduction, in section 28 in “Other Miscellaneous Deductions”. You are only allowed to claim losses up to the amount of winnings.

This means if the casino reports $50,000 of winnings, but throughout the year you gambled a total of $60,000, winning back $50,000 but losing $10,000, you can’t claim that $10,000 loss on your tax return.

In order to claim losses, you must keep gambling records and receipts. 

Yes, you do get to deduct the losses so you don’t pay income taxes on the winnings, but that is only part of the story. The rest of the story has to do with how gambling winnings affect your Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI).

How Gambling Winnings Affect Your MAGI

As gambling winnings are reported via the first page of your tax return (with total winnings being reported before they are offset by losses) this has the effect of increasing your MAGI. Your MAGI is calculated before you get the benefit of reducing it by any itemized deductions such as gambling losses. So gambling winnings increase your MAGI - even if you didn't actually win anything when comparing winnings to losses.

Other tax calculations are compared to your MAGI to determine whether you pay more tax in other areas or lose out on some deductions. An increased MAGI can mean you pay more in other areas and/or lose out on some deductions.

How MAGI Affects Other Tax-Related Items

Here are some of the items that MAGI affects:

Let’s take a look at an example of how gambling winnings affected some of the items above for one retired man in his early 70’s.

Example of the Gambling Tax in Retirement

David (name changed for privacy) is in his early 70s and lost his wife many years ago. He still works part-time in his business which is now primarily run by his son, and by the looks of his tax return, I am guessing he spends the rest of his time at the local casino.

Why would I guess this?

Last year he reported over $550,000 of gambling winnings on his tax return. Lucky guy, right? Not really. He reported the same amount in losses.

David’s MAGI would have been less than $80,000 without gambling. Instead, it was over $630,000. Rather than paying Medicare Part B premiums at $105 a month he’ll be paying $335 a month; an increase of $2,760 per year. In 2013 this MAGI level caused him to lose about $11,400 of his itemized deductions, costing him another $2,850 in taxes (at the 25% marginal rate).

Even if his gambling habit is a wash, it will be costing David thousands extra each year in taxes. This hidden gambling tax can affect both lower income and higher income retirees but in different ways.

  • For lower-income retirees, a hidden gambling tax can occur because increased MAGI increases the amount of your Social Security benefits subject to taxation and reduces your eligibility for a tax credit on health insurance.
  • For higher-income retirees, the hidden gambling tax may come in the form of a loss of deductions due to the phaseout limits, increased Medicare Part B premiums, and/or the applicability of the 3.8% Medicare surtax on investment income.

Keep in mind, a well-designed withdrawal strategy in retirement can help make sure you don’t pay any more taxes than you have to - but one trip to the casino can throw the plan off track.