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What is COLA?

COLA stands for cost-of-living adjustment and applies to Social Security benefits. Congress enacted the COLA legislation as part of the 1972 Social Security Amendments. Starting in 1975, automatic COLAs were enacted by the legislature and were tied to the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). Prior to the enactment, Social Security benefits were increased only when Congress enacted special legislation.

The purpose of this legislation was to ensure that Social Security payments kept pace with inflation. Workers are often able to receive some relief from inflation because wages tend to increase during periods of significant inflation. However, individuals receiving a fixed income, like Social Security benefits, suffered during periods of significant inflation because their benefits did not increase. COLA attempts to reduce the financial harm that periods of high inflation can inflict on individuals receiving a fixed income.

If you are not yet receiving Social Security payments, you can send a Social Security Benefits Letter to request an estimate of your Social Security benefits. For those that are ready to apply for their Social Security benefits, start by filling out a Social Security Application Worksheet, which is helpful for organizing all of your information in preparation of submitting your application. If you are already receiving Social Security benefits but would like to make changes to the personal information that the Social Security Administration has on file, such as your address or marital status updates, you can send a Social Security Change in Information to make those changes.

When was the last COLA and how much was the increase?

The most recent COLA became effective in December 2022. At that time, Social Security benefits were increased by 8.7%. In 2021, the COLA increase for Social Security benefits was 5.9%. Both of these years saw historically large increases, which were the result of high inflation over the past several years.

Americans who are receiving Social Security benefits or SSI are set to automatically receive the new benefit amount. The increased payments were first issued in the January 2023 Social Security payments. If your Social Security payments did not increase in January 2023, contact a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for assistance with getting your benefit amount corrected.

As a Social Security beneficiary, how can I be sure to get the COLA?

The COLA is automatic, so no action is required on behalf of Social Security beneficiaries to receive the increased Social Security benefits.

If you have questions about your federal retirement benefits or Social Security check amount, reach out to a lawyer who specializes in Social Security matters. If you have a financial advisor, that person may also be able to answer questions that you have about your retirement or Social Security benefits.

The COLA went into effect starting with the December 2022 benefits, which means beneficiaries can expect the new amounts to first appear in their January 2023 Social Security checks.

How are my Social Security benefits taxed?

The Social Security Administration provides a Social Security Benefit Statement (Form SSA-1099) each year to Social Security recipients. Form SSA-1099 shows the amount of benefits that the recipient received during the prior tax year. It is important to report Form SSA-1099 on your income tax return because it helps to determine if any tax is due on your benefits.

Although Social Security benefits are expected to be reported on your income tax return, your benefits may not be taxed. To determine if your Social Security benefits are taxable, first calculate one-half of your Social Security benefits plus all of your other income (such as wages, business income, and taxable interest). This number is called your combined income. If you file your income tax return as a single individual and your combined income is between $25,000 and $34,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your Social Security benefits (the other 50% of your Social Security benefits would not be subject to federal income taxes). If you file your income tax return as a single individual and your combined income is greater than $34,000, up to 85% of your Social Security benefits may be taxable (the other 15% of your Social Security benefits would not be subject to federal income taxes).

If you file a joint income tax return and want to determine if your Social Security benefits are taxable, calculate one-half of you and your spouse’s Social Security benefits plus all of you and your spouse’s other income. Include your spouse’s other income even if your spouse does not receive Social Security benefits. If you and your spouse have a combined income that is between $32,000 and $44,000, you may have to pay income tax on up to 50% of your combined Social Security benefits. If you and your spouse have a combined income that is greater than $44,000, up to 85% of your combined Social Security benefits may be taxable. If you are married and file a married filing separately income tax return, you are likely to owe income taxes on your Social Security benefits. Contact a tax professional for assistance with preparing your income tax return or if you have questions about how your Social Security benefits are taxed.  

Can the COLA increase affect my taxes? 

It is possible for the COLA increase to impact how much of your Social Security benefits are subject to income taxation. It depends entirely on how much you receive in Social Security benefits and how much other income you have during the tax year. COLA increases may even push a portion of your income into a higher tax bracket. 

If you have more questions about how the COLA increase may impact your taxes, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney or your tax professional.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.


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