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All Contents © 2017The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kevin McCormally, Chief Content Officer
| March 2017
Years ago, the fellow running the IRS told Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine that he figured millions of taxpayers overpaid their taxes every year by overlooking just one of the money-saving tax breaks listed here.
We’ve updated all the key details in this popular guide to the common tax deductions many filers miss to ensure that your 2016 return is a money-saving masterpiece. Cut your tax bill to the bone by claiming all the tax write-offs you deserve.
After years of uncertainty, in 2015 Congress finally made this break “permanent.” This is particularly important to you if you live in a state that does not impose a state income tax. Congress offers itemizers the choice between deducting the state income taxes or state sales taxes they paid. You choose whichever saves you the most money. So if your state doesn't have an income tax, the sales tax write-off is clearly the way to go.
In some cases, even filers who pay state income taxes can come out ahead with the sales tax choice. And, you don’t need a wheelbarrow full of receipts. The IRS has tables that show how much residents of various states can deduct, based on their income and state and local sales tax rates. But the tables aren't the last word. If you purchased a vehicle, boat or airplane, you may add the sales tax you paid on that big-ticket item to the amount shown in the IRS table for your state. The IRS even has a calculator that shows how much residents of various states can deduct, based on their income and state and local sales tax rates.
We put those quotations marks around permanent above because, as Congress takes up tax reform in 2017, one possibility is the elimination of both the sales tax and the state income tax deductions. But you’re still sure to have the choice for your 2016 return.
This isn't a tax deduction, but it is an important subtraction that can save you a bundle. And this is the one that former IRS commissioner Fred Goldberg told Kiplinger millions of taxpayers miss . . . costing them millions in overpaid taxes.
If, like most investors, you have mutual fund dividends automatically reinvested to buy extra shares, remember that each new purchase increases your tax basis in the fund. That, in turn, reduces the taxable capital gain (or increases the tax-saving loss) when you redeem shares. Forgetting to include reinvested dividends in your basis results in double taxation of the dividends—once in the year when they were paid out and immediately reinvested and later when they're included in the proceeds of the sale.
Don't make that costly mistake.
If you're not sure what your basis is, ask the fund for help. Funds often report to investors the tax basis of shares redeemed during the year. In fact, for the sale of shares purchased in 2012 and later years, funds must report the basis to investors and to the IRS.
It's hard to overlook the big charitable gifts you made during the year, by check or payroll deduction (check your December pay stub).
But little things add up, too, and you can write off out-of-pocket costs incurred while doing work for a charity. For example, ingredients for casseroles you prepare for a nonprofit organization's soup kitchen and stamps you buy for a school's fund-raising mailing count as charitable contributions. Keep your receipts. If your contribution totals more than $250, you'll also need an acknowledgement from the charity documenting the support you provided. If you drove your car for charity in 2016, remember to deduct 14 cents per mile, plus parking and tolls paid, in your philanthropic journeys.
Generally, you can deduct interest only if you are legally required to repay the debt. But if parents pay back a child's student loans, the IRS treats the transactions as if the money were given to the child, who then paid the debt. So as long as the child is no longer claimed as a dependent, he or she can deduct up to $2,500 of student-loan interest paid by Mom and Dad each year. And he or she doesn't have to itemize to use this money-saver. (Mom and Dad can't claim the interest deduction even though they actually foot the bill because they are not liable for the debt.)
If you're among the millions of unemployed Americans who were looking for a job in 2016, we hope you were successful . . . and that you kept track of your job-search expenses or can reconstruct them. If you were looking for a position in the same line of work as your current or most recent job, you can deduct job-hunting costs as miscellaneous expenses if you itemize. Qualifying expenses can be written off even if you didn't land a new job. But such expenses can be deducted only to the extent that your total miscellaneous expenses exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. (Job-hunting expenses incurred while looking for your first job don't qualify.) Deductible costs include, but aren't limited to:
Although job-hunting expenses are not deductible when looking for your first job, moving expenses to get to that job are. And you get this write-off even if you don't itemize. To qualify for the deduction, your first job must be at least 50 miles away from your old home. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new area. If you drove your own car on a 2016 move, deduct 19 cents a mile, plus what you paid for parking and tolls. (The rate falls to 17 cents a mile for 2017 moves.) For a full list of deductible moving expenses, check out IRS Publication 521.
Members of the National Guard or military reserve may write off the cost of travel to drills or meetings. To qualify, you must travel more than 100 miles from home and be away from home overnight. If you qualify, you can deduct the cost of lodging and half the cost of your meals, plus an allowance for driving your own car to get to and from drills.
For 2016 travel, the rate is 54 cents a mile, plus what you paid for parking fees and tolls. You may claim this deduction even if you use the standard deduction rather than itemizing. (The rate falls to 53.5 cents a mile for 2017 travel.)
Folks who continue to run their own businesses after qualifying for Medicare can deduct the premiums they pay for Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D, plus the cost of supplemental Medicare (medigap) policies or the cost of a Medicare Advantage plan.
This deduction is available whether or not you itemize and is not subject to the 7.5% of AGI test that applies to itemized medical expenses for those age 65 and older. One caveat: You can't claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under an employer-subsidized health plan offered by either your employer (if you have a job as well as your business) or your spouse's employer (if he or she has a job that offers family medical coverage).
A credit is so much better than a deduction; it reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. So missing one is even more painful than missing a deduction that simply reduces the amount of income that's subject to tax. In the 25% bracket, each dollar of deductions is worth a quarter; each dollar of credits is worth a greenback.
You can qualify for a tax credit worth between 20% and 35% of what you pay for child care while you work. But if your boss offers a child care reimbursement account—which allows you to pay for the child care with pretax dollars—that’s likely to be an even better deal. If you qualify for a 20% credit but are in the 25% tax bracket, for example, the reimbursement plan is the way to go. Not only does money run through a reimbursement account avoid federal income taxes, it also is protected from the 7.65% Social Security tax. (In any case, only amounts paid for the care of children younger than age 13 count.)
You can't double dip. Expenses paid through a plan can't also be used to generate the tax credit. But get this: Although only $5,000 in expenses can be paid through a tax-favored reimbursement account, up to $6,000 for the care of two or more children can qualify for the credit. So if you run the maximum through a plan at work but spend even more for work-related child care, you can claim the credit on as much as $1,000 of additional expenses. That would cut your tax bill by at least $200.
This sounds complicated, but it can save you a lot of money if you inherited an IRA from someone whose estate was big enough to be subject to the federal estate tax.
Basically, you get an income-tax deduction for the amount of estate tax paid on the IRA assets you received. Let's say you inherited a $100,000 IRA, and the fact that the money was included in your benefactor's estate added $40,000 to the estate-tax bill. You get to deduct that $40,000 on your tax returns as you withdraw the money from the IRA. If you withdraw $50,000 in one year, for example, you get to claim a $20,000 itemized deduction on Schedule A. That would save you $5,600 in the 28% bracket.
Did you owe tax when you filed your 2015 state income tax return in the spring of 2016? Then, for goodness' sake, remember to include that amount in your state-tax deduction on your 2016 federal return, along with state income taxes withheld from your paychecks or paid via quarterly estimated payments during the year.
When you buy a house, you get to deduct in one fell swoop the points paid to get your mortgage. When you refinance, though, you have to deduct the points on the new loan over the life of that loan. That means you can deduct 1/30th of the points a year if it's a 30-year mortgage. That's $33 a year for each $1,000 of points you paid—not much, maybe, but don't throw it away.
Even more important, in the year you pay off the loan—because you sell the house or refinance again—you get to deduct all as-yet-undeducted points. There's one exception to this sweet rule: If you refinance a refinanced loan with the same lender, you add the points paid on the latest deal to the leftovers from the previous refinancing, then deduct that amount gradually over the life of the new loan. A pain? Yes, but at least you'll be compensated for the hassle.
Many employers continue to pay employees' full salary while they serve on jury duty, and some impose a quid pro quo: The employees have to turn over their jury pay to the company coffers. The only problem is that the IRS demands that you report those jury fees as taxable income. To even things out, you get to deduct the amount you give to your employer.
But how do you do it? There's no line on the Form 1040 labeled “jury fees.” Instead, the write-off goes on line 36, which purports to be for simply totaling up deductions that get their own lines. Include your jury fees with your other write-offs and write "jury pay" on the dotted line.
Unlike the Hope Credit that this one replaced, the American Opportunity Credit is good for all four years of college, not just the first two. Don't shortchange yourself by missing this critical difference. This tax credit is based on 100% of the first $2,000 spent on qualifying college expenses and 25% of the next $2,000 ... for a maximum annual credit per student of $2,500. The full credit is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less ($160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return). The credit is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above those levels.
If the credit exceeds your tax liability, it can trigger a refund. (Most credits are “nonrefundable,” meaning they can reduce your tax to $0, but not get you a check from the IRS.)
College credits aren’t just for youngsters, nor are they limited to just the first four years of college. The Lifetime Learning credit can be claimed for any number of years and can be used to offset the cost of higher education for yourself or your spouse . . . not just for your children.
The credit is worth up to $2,000 a year, based on 20% of up to $10,000 you spend for post-high-school courses that lead to new or improved job skills. Classes you take even in retirement at a vocational school or community college can count. If you brushed up on skills in 2016, this credit can help pay the bills. The right to claim this tax-saver phases out as income rises from $55,000 to $65,000 on an individual return and from $110,000 to $130,000 for couples filing jointly.
Airlines seem to revel in driving travelers batty with extra fees for baggage, online booking and for changing travel plans. Such fees add up to billions of dollars each year. If you get burned, maybe Uncle Sam will help ease the pain. If you're self-employed and travelling on business, be sure to add those costs to your deductible travel expenses.
Your 2016 return is the last chance to claim a tax credit for installing energy-efficient windows or making similar energy-saving home improvements. You can claim up to $500 in total tax credits for eligible improvements, based on 10% of the purchase cost (not installation) of certain insulation, windows, doors and skylights. The credit is subject to a lifetime cap, so if you’ve already pocketed the max, you’re out of luck. But there’s no such limit on the much more powerful incentive for those who install qualified residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar hot water heaters, geothermal heat pumps and wind turbines in 2016. Your credit can be 30% of the total cost (including labor) of such systems.
Business owners—including those who run businesses out of their homes—have to stay on their toes to capture tax breaks for buying new equipment. The rules seem to be constantly shifting as Congress writes incentives into the law and then allows them to expire or to be cut back to save money. Take “bonus depreciation” as an example. Back in 2011, rather than write off the cost of new equipment over many years, a business could use 100% bonus depreciation to deduct the full cost in the year the equipment was put into service. For 2013, the bonus depreciation rate was 50%. The break expired at the end of 2013 and stayed expired until the end of 2014 . . . when Congress reinstated it retroactively to cover 2014 purchases. Then, the provision expired again . . . but near the end of 2015, Congress revived the break. The 50% bonus applies for property purchased in 2016 and 2017, too; the bonus drops to 40% in 2018 and 30% in 2019.
Perhaps even more valuable, though, is another break: supercharged "expensing," which basically lets you write off the full cost of qualifying assets in the year you put them into service. This break, too, has a habit of coming and going. But as part of the 2015 tax law, Congress made the expansion of expensing permanent. For 2016 and future years, businesses can expense up to $500,000 worth of assets. The half-million-dollar cap phases out dollar for dollar for firms that put more than $2 million worth of assets into service in a single year.
This doesn’t work for employees. You can’t deduct the 7.65% of pay that’s siphoned off for Social Security and Medicare. But if you’re self-employed and have to pay the full 15.3% tax yourself (instead of splitting it 50-50 with an employer), you do get to write off half of what you pay. That deduction comes on the face of Form 1040, so you don’t have to itemize to take advantage of it.
This isn’t a deduction, but it can save you money if it protects you from a penalty. Because our tax system operates on a pay-as-you earn basis, taxpayers typically must pay 90% of what they owe during the year via withholding or estimated tax payments. If you don’t, and you owe more than $1,000 when you file your return, you can be hit with a penalty for underpayment of taxes. The penalty works like interest on a loan—as though you borrowed from the IRS the money you didn’t pay. The current rate is 3%.
There are several exceptions to the penalty, including a little-known one that can protect taxpayers age 62 and older in the year they retire and the following year. You can request a waiver of the penalty—using Form 2210—if you have reasonable cause, such as not realizing you had to shift to estimated tax payments after a lifetime of meeting your obligation via withholding from your paychecks.
If you purchased a taxable bond for more than its face value—as you might have to capture a yield higher than current market rates deliver—Uncle Sam will effectively help you pay that premium. That’s only fair, since the IRS is also going to get to tax the extra interest that the higher yield produces.
You have two choices about how to handle the premium.
You can amortize it over the life of the bond by taking each year’s share of the premium and subtracting it from the amount of taxable interest from the bond you report on your tax return. Each year you also reduce your tax basis for the bond by the amount of that year’s amortization.
Or, you can ignore the premium until you sell or redeem the bond. At that time, the full premium will be included in your tax basis so it will reduce the taxable gain or increase the taxable loss dollar for dollar.
The amortization route can be a pain, since it’s up to you to both figure how each year’s share and keep track of the declining basis. But it could be more valuable, since the interest you don’t report will avoid being taxed in your top tax bracket for the year—as high as 43.4%, while the capital gain you reduce by waiting until you sell or redeem the bond would only be taxed at 0%, 15% or 20%.
If you buy a tax-free municipal bond at a premium, you must use the amortization method and reduce your basis each year . . . but you don’t get to deduct the amount amortized. After all, the IRS doesn’t get to tax the interest.
Although legal fees and court costs involved in a divorce are generally nondeductible personal expenses, you may be able to deduct the part of your attorney’s bill.
Since alimony is taxable income, you can deduct the part of the lawyer’s fee that is attributable to setting the amount. You can also deduct the portion of the fee that is attributable to tax advice. You must itemize to get any tax savings here, and these costs fall into the category of miscellaneous expenses that are deductible only to the extent that the total exceeds 2% of your adjusted gross income. Still, be sure your attorney provides a detailed statement that breaks down his fee so you can tell how much of it may qualify for a tax-saving deduction.
There’s a line on the tax form for reporting a state income tax refund, but most people who get refunds can simply ignore it even though the state sent the IRS a copy of the 1099-G you got reporting the refund. If, like most taxpayers, you didn’t itemize deductions on your previous federal return, the state tax refund is tax-free.
Even if you did itemize, part of it might be tax-free. It’s taxable only to the extent that your deduction of state income taxes the previous year actually saved you money. If you would have itemized (rather than taking the standard deduction) even without your state tax deduction, then 100% of your refund is taxable—since 100% of your write-off reduced your taxable income. But, if part of the state tax write-off is what pushed you over the standard deduction threshold, then part of the refund is tax-free. Don’t report any more than you have to.
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