Tax time, your heartbeat quickens, your palms get sweaty and you get that nervous feeling in the pit of your stomach. Not knowing what you owe only heightens the desire to procrastinate. However, not to fear, there are a host of available deductions that you may have overlooked that could result in less money owed or even higher refunds.
If you are going to itemize your return, consider getting a professional's help. It's not like the old days, when your deductions and their amounts stayed the same year after year. With today's tax law "reforms" a person could get lost in the maze of new twists and turns.Be the pack rat. Never throw away your receipts for deductible items.
"Keep records of anything that substantiates an entry on your tax return for at least three years," said Mike McGrail, an IRS spokesman in Chicago. "Keeping good records is the best way to make sure you're claiming all appropriate deductions a year from now and to prepare for any possible audit."
Here are some typical deductions to remember:
- Expenses related to your home should be calculated; points paid on first home mortgages are deductible in the first year of the mortgage but only if they are paid out of pocket. Otherwise, those points and points on some refinancings are deductible over the life of the loan. Real estate taxes and expenses related to moving due to job relocation both are deductible. Interest charges on home loans and equity loans are 100 percent deductible. Deductions for credit card interest charges are still allowed, but only up to 10 percent of the interest charged. This is the last year that this will be permissible, however.
Also, if you have paid off your mortgage balance early and were penalized, you may apply that to your deduction now. Penalties for early savings withdrawals are applicable, too.
- Stock or securities that became worthless in the past year are deductible. This deduction is limited to $3,000, however, anything over that amount must be carried forward.
For example, if you purchased $5,000 worth of penny stock that is no longer listed, or the company has folded, you would get a tax deduction of $3,000 this year and $2,000 next year, provided you had no other capital gains. Amortization of premium on taxable bonds is another deduction.
"If you bought a high yielding treasury and paid in excess of par, you could amortize the premium over the remaining life of the bond," said Paul Huth, tax partner at Ernst & Young, the second largest accounting firm in the country. "In today's marketplace of falling interest rates, it's a very realistic deduction."
- Medical fees paid over the past year may also be applied. The cost of alcohol and drug abuse treatments - less insurance coverage - is deductible if paid by the individual and not the employer. Contraceptives prescribed by a physician, hearing aids, orthopedic shoes and other special equipment for the disabled or handicapped are allowable deductions as well. If your employer requires you to undergo a physical examination, the cost of that can be itemized. No cosmetic surgery costs are allowed. Medical expenses must exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income in order to be deducted.
- Work related outlays - that are not reimbursed by your employer - can be deducted. Labor union dues and payments into a strike fund can be figured into your miscellaneous deductions. These miscellaneous charges are 100 percent deductible once they total more than 2 percent of your gross income. Charges for work clothes and uniforms are allowed if they cannot be worn as regular clothes. If your job requires you to drive a great deal, you can deduct 26 cents per work-related mile.
- An earned income credit is available to individuals who have a child living with them and whose earnings for the year were $20,264 or less. This includes natural children, adoptees and children placed in your home by the state. The size of the credit is based on the level of earnings, but the maximum amount is $953 per year.
"Many people don't take the credit because they don't know about it," said Mark Yahoudy, tax manager at the accounting firm of Checkers, Simon & Rosner in Chicago. "But the IRS will usually compute the credit for them if they catch it."
Yahoudy also suggests people take advantage of the child-care credit. The credit limit is 20 percent to 30 percent of the cost of child care, depending on the family's income.
"Child care is very expensive," said Yahoudy. "If there are two children in the family, you could be paying $7,000 a year. A tax credit of up to $480 definitely helps."
Some of the more uncommon itemized deductions include costs for special foods diets, gambling losses to the extent of gambling gains, hair transplants and wigs essential to mental health.
Charitable contributions are still deductible and the contribution doesn't necessarily have to be in cash. It can be clothing donations (at 15 percent of cost) or mileage expenses to charitable activities.
However, probably the most satisfying deductions a person can use are fees for tax preparations and IRS audits.
Even if you cannot pay what you owe, it is extremely important that you file your return by the April 15 deadline.The penalty for failing to file on time when you owe is 10 times more severe than it is for failing to pay.
Reader questions will be answered and may appear in this column, when mailed to Gary S. Meyers at 308 W. Erie, Suite 300, Chicago, IL 60610.