Every year, the IRS dutifully reports the most common blunders that taxpayers make on their returns. And every year, at or near the top of the "oops" list is forgetting to enter their Social Security number at the top of the tax form -- or making a mistake when entering those nine digits.
But financial expert Mark Lamkin from Lamkin Wealth Management says one thing we know for sure is that the opportunity to make mistakes is almost unlimited, and missed deductions can be the most costly. About 45 million of us itemize on our 1040s -- claiming more than $1 trillion worth of deductions. That's right: $1,000,000,000,000, a number rarely spoken out loud until Congress started tying itself up in knots trying to deal with the budget deficit and national debt.
Another 92 million taxpayers claim about $700 billion worth using standard deductions -- and some of you who take the easy way out probably shortchange yourselves. (If you turned 65 in 2012, remember that you now deserve a bigger standard deduction than when you were younger.)
Yes, friends, tax time is a dangerous time. It's all too easy to miss a trick and pay too much. Years ago, the fellow who ran the IRS at the time told Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine that he figured millions of taxpayers overpay their taxes every year by overlooking just one of the money-savers listed below.
1. Out-of-pocket charitable contributions
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 the 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 your school's fundraising mailing count as a charitable contribution. Keep your receipts and if your contribution totals more than $250, you'll need an acknowledgement from the charity documenting the support you provided. If you drove your car for charity in 2012, remember to deduct 14 cents per mile plus parking and tolls paid in your philanthropic journeys.
2. Deduction of Medicare premiums for the self-employed
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 and the cost of supplemental Medicare (medigap) policies. This deduction is available whether or not you itemize and is not subject the 7.5% of AGI test that applies to itemized medical expenses. One caveat: You can't claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under an employer-subsidized health plan offered by 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.
3. Child-care credit
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 pre-tax dollars -- that might 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. (In any case, only amounts paid for the care of children under 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.
4. Refinancing points
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 -- and deduct that amount gradually over the life of the new loan. A pain? Yes, but at least you'll be compensated for the hassle.
5. American Opportunity Credit
Unlike the Hope Credit that this one has temporarily 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 can reduce your tax to $0, but not get you a check from the IRS.)
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