Tax filing wars go down to the wire
An ounce of prevention

Deduction floors and ceilings

I regularly hear three words from the hubby during tax season. No, not those three, although I know he's crazy about me beyond words.

He continually tells me as I sort through our tax filing material to deduct, deduct, deduct.

Message received, honey. I'm working on it.

We're in the filing minority. We itemize. IRS statistics show, year after year, that most taxpayers claim the standard deduction.

Part of the reason is that it's easy. Just look on your tax form and it'll tell you the amount to enter. No receipts to save, no addition or subtraction or percentage multiplication to mess with.

Also, since the tax brackets were widened back in 2001 and inflation keeps bumping up the allowable income levels in each, a lot of people don't have enough itemized amounts to come anywhere near the standard number. For 2006 returns the standard deductions are:

  • $5,150 for single filers
  • $7,550 for head of household taxpayers
  • $10,300 for married couples filing a joint return

House_money2 Tax help from your house: The biggest component for itemizers is mortgage interest or property taxes. I used to be able to say unequivocally that it was the interest, but when home loan rates hit rock bottom a few years ago, the amount of deductible interest also dropped.

Then, as the interest rates dropped and more people were buying, home prices and subsequent tax values went up. So if you live in a state where local governments depend primarily on property taxes to fund services, like here in Texas, you've likely seen your annual property tax bills rise. Some might say skyrocket.

The bottom line is that in some cases, the property taxes are as much as, if not more than, the mortgage interest amounts. We got a 5.125 percent 30-year loan so those two amounts on our Schedule A are about the same.

Then when you add in the state sales tax write-off (or state income taxes you paid if you're in one of the 41 states or D.C. that collects those), along with some charitable contributions and itemizing is the way to go.

But even when you have enough to itemize, you still might not be able to take every possible deduction because of phaseouts or floors.

Hitting the tax floor: Some itemized deductions are deductible only to the extent they exceed a specified percentage of your adjusted gross income (AGI). That's the amount that shows up on line 37 and is re-entered on line 38 of your 1040.

Some common deduction floors include:

  • For medical expenses, the threshold is 7.5 percent of AGI. If you're subject to the alternative minimum tax, it's 10 percent.
  • For miscellaneous itemized deductions, the magic number is 2 percent of AGI.
  • For casualty losses, the amount is 10 percent of AGI. But you also can only count losses in excess of $100 per casualty and, of course, you also have to subtract out any insurance settlements.

If you can get your AGI lower by using some the adjustments, aka above-the-line tax deductions, at the bottom of your 1040 (lines 23 through 35), it could help you meet the floors for your itemized tax breaks.

Remember that this year, the tuition and fees and educators' deductions don't show up on the 1040, but you still can claim these adjustments. Details here.

Here's an example of how the adjustments could help:

Your total income is $80,000. You pay $10,000 in alimony and student loan interest of $2,500. These take your AGI to $67,500. These two deductions alone mean that you've just gone from the 28 percent bracket to the 25 percent one.

The bonus: Since your AGI is lower, your threshold for claiming, for example, a medical deduction is lower. You went from needing more than $6,000 in medical expenses at the $80,000 income level to $5062.50 when your AGI is $67,500. That $937.50 difference means you might now be able to claim some medical costs that your higher AGI prevented.

Dollar_signs Facing phaseouts: The other side of the deduction restriction coin is phaseouts. In these cases, a deduction or other tax break is reduced or eliminated if your income exceeds a certain amount.

This happens, for example, with specific deductions for IRAs, tuition and student loan interest, as well as for your overall itemized deduction amount. Even personal exemptions can be cut if you make what the tax laws decree is too much.

In the case of a traditional IRA, if last year you were covered by a retirement plan at work, any deduction for money you put in that retirement account is phased out if your modified AGI was:

  • More than $75,000 but less than $85,000 for a married couple filing a joint return or a qualifying widow or widower. (For 2007, the phaseout range is more than $83,000 and less than $103,000.)   
  • More than $50,000 but less than $60,000 for a single individual or head of household. (For 2007, the phaseout range is more than $52,000 and less than $62,000.)

There's also the overall phaseout for itemized deductions. In this case, if the total of all your Schedule A itemized deductions could be reduced if you make a lot of money ($150,500 for 2006 returns for single, married filing jointly and head of household filers; $75,250 for married couples filing separate returns).

A similar income threshold could reduce the value of your personal exemptions. If your adjusted gross income is more than $112,875 this tax year, you'll have to complete a worksheet (found in the 1040 and 1040A instruction books) to see just how much of the $3,300-per-person exemption you can claim.

Again, using above-the-line deductions to lower your adjusted gross income might mean you'll be able to meet some of phaseout limits.

Taking advantage of every way to maximize deductions is the key. Or, to put it in real-world terms, I'll let my colleague Katie have the last word:

"That's pretty much my motive -- find deductions, buy shoes with leftover cash!"


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Pam Baggett

Hey, Kay.
I just picked up my taxes from my new CPA. I had been congratulating myself for switching from my old accountant to a sharp young CPA with lots of experience helping small businesses--his wife's among them. But I just looked at my invoice and don't know whether congrats are in order! $150 vs $850.
I need to go take a nap.

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