It’s a new year and you might not be thinking about taxes just yet… but perhaps you should. After all, April will be here before you know it.
That’s why in this article, we’re going to concentrate on the most common tax deductions you need to know about. There are plenty of deductions still available, but exactly where they’ll appear on your tax return may be different than they have been in the past.
Table of Contents:
The Biggest Change: The Increase in the Standard Deduction
For millions of taxpayers, this increase has proven to be a game changer. That’s because they’re no longer able to itemize deductions, given that the standard deductions have virtually doubled.
The standard deductions have bumped up a few hundred dollars each for 2019. For example, the deduction is $24,400 if you’re married filing jointly, $12,200 if you’re single or married and filing separately, and $18,350 if you file as head of household.
The increases in thresholds (from 2017 and earlier years) have eliminated the itemized deduction option for millions of taxpayers.
But there are still plenty of deductions available if you can itemize, and a bunch more even if you can’t.
“Above the Line” vs. “Below the Line” Deductions
This is an important distinction known primarily to professional tax preparers.
The “line” for the purposes of this discussion, is your adjusted gross income (AGI). Above the line deductions reduce your AGI. An example would be a contribution to a traditional IRA. This can be an advantage because a lower AGI may enable you to qualify for certain other tax benefits, like thresholds for calculating certain itemized deductions, as well as non-tax benefits, like student loan repayment calculations.
One of the big advantages of above the line deductions is that you can take them whether you itemize or not. And if you can’t itemize, they’re especially important.
Below the line deductions refers to deductions you can take after calculating your AGI. These are primarily itemized deductions. They’re calculated on Schedule A, then transferred to Form 1040 and deducted from your AGI. They generally have the same effect of lowering your taxable income, but they don’t reduce your AGI.
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Above the Line Deductions
Once again, above the line deductions can be taken whether or not you itemize on Schedule A. They’re entered on Form 1040, Schedule 1, Additional Income and Adjustments to Income, then transferred to Form 1040 itself just before calculating your income tax liability.
The most common above the line deductions include the following:
If you’re a qualified teacher, you can deduct up to $250, or $500 if you’re married filing jointly and you’re both teachers. Educator expenses include costs for books, supplies, computer equipment, and other necessary expenses. Naturally, you can only deduct these expenses if they’re not reimbursed by your employer.
Certain business expenses of reservists, performing artists, and fee-basis government officials
As an Armed Forces reservist, you can claim a deduction for amounts due to traveling more than 100 miles from home. The travel must be related to your reserve activities.
Fee-basis state or local government officials can include amounts paid for expenses incurred in connection with your assignments.
Qualified performing artists can include expenses related to their craft. Your adjusted gross income must be $16,000 or less before subtracting the expenses in connection with being a performing artist.
Health savings account (HSA) deduction
An HSA is a tax-sheltered account you can set up to pay medical expenses. Contributions are allowed up to $3,500 per year for an individual, and $7,000 for a family. For those 55 and older, the contribution limit increases by $1,000.
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These are something like IRAs for medical expenses. Not only are your contributions tax-deductible, but any income you earn on your savings is also tax-deferred. The funds can be withdrawn for any qualified medical expense, without being subject to income tax. Any money not spent in the current tax year can be carried forward indefinitely.
This is an excellent workaround strategy if you have significant medical expenses, but aren’t able to write them off as an itemized deduction.
Moving expenses for members of the Armed Forces
Let’s start with this – the new tax law eliminated moving expenses as a deduction for ordinary taxpayers. However, there is an above the line provision for moving expenses if you’re a qualified member of the Armed Forces. That will be the case if you incur expenses for a move due to reassignment.
Deductible part of self-employment tax
If you’re self-employed, you’ll be required to pay the self-employment tax. That’s basically the FICA tax for the self-employed. However, instead of paying 7.65% of your net income for the tax, the way wage earners do, you instead pay 15.3%.
That’s because wage earners only pay half the tax; their employer pays the other half. If you’re self-employed, you have to pay both halves.
However, the IRS allows you to deduct half the tax against your income for federal income tax purposes as an above the line deduction.
Self-employed SEP, SIMPLE, and qualified plans
There are enhanced retirement plans available for the self-employed, that allow you to deduct an even larger amount than you can under a traditional IRA. For example, under a SEP IRA, you can deduct 25% of your business income, up to $56,000 per year. It’s deductible as an above the line deduction.
Self-employed health insurance deduction
If you’re self-employed person, and you pay health insurance premiums, they can’t be taken as a business expense on your Schedule C. But they can be deducted as an above the line deduction. You can deduct the full amount of premiums paid for health insurance and long-term care insurance, as long as the combined amount doesn’t exceed the net income from your business.
Penalty on early withdrawal of savings
If you pay a penalty for early withdrawal of a savings instrument, like a certificate of deposit, it can be deducted as an above the line deduction. This will have the net effect of reducing the taxability of any interest income earned on the certificate.
There was a major change with the tax status of alimony in the new tax law. Beginning in 2019, alimony will no longer be tax deductible if it’s pursuant to divorce decrees executed after December 31, 2018.
However, if you pay alimony as a result of a divorce decree executed no later than December 31, 2018, it’s still tax-deductible as an above the line deduction.
If you make a contribution to a traditional IRA, it may be tax deductible, and reported as an above the line deduction. However, contributions may be limited or ineligible if you are covered by an employer sponsored retirement plan.
Note: Roth IRA contributions are never tax-deductible.
Student loan interest deduction
If you have student loans, you can deduct up to $2,500 in interest as an above the line tax deduction.
Below the Line Deductions
Once again, below the line deductions are primarily itemized deductions you include on Schedule A. You can only itemized deductions if they exceed the amount of your standard deduction.
Includable expenses are as follows:
Medical and Dental Expenses
If you’re able to itemize your deductions, medical and dental expenses may be partially deductible. I’m saying partial because a limitation applies to the amount of the deduction.
For 2019, you’ll need to tally up all your medical and dental expenses, then reduce them by 10% of your adjusted gross income. For example, if your total medical and dental expenses are $15,000, and your adjusted gross income is $100,000, you’ll first need to reduce your expenses by $10,000 ($100,000 X 10%), leaving you with $5,000 in deductible expenses.
Fortunately, there’s a long list of medical and dental expenses that can be deducted. These include fees paid to medical professionals, payments for inpatient hospital care or residential nursing home care, acupuncture treatments, inpatient treatment for alcohol or drug addiction, or participation in a smoking cessation program; payments to participate in a weight loss program (certain qualifications are required), payments for insulin, false teeth, reading or prescription glasses, contact lenses, hearing aids, crutches, wheelchairs, and payment for medically related transportation. Each of these expenses will need to be reduced by any insurance reimbursement received.
As well, you can deduct payments for premiums paid for health insurance and qualified long-term care insurance that you pay directly to the carrier.
Taxes You Paid
You can deduct payments for state and local income and sales taxes, state and local real estate taxes, and state and local personal property taxes. Collectively, these taxes are referred to as SALT deductions.
Like the medical and dental expenses deduction, a limitation applies here as well. The combination of all taxes paid are only deductible up to a total of $10,000. Beyond that threshold, your taxes paid to state and local governments are not deductible.
Interest You Paid
Though the line item on Schedule A appears as “Interest You Paid”, the only deductible forms of interest are mortgage interest and investment interest.
You can deduct interest paid on mortgage indebtedness on your primary and secondary homes only. Interest can be deducted on a mortgage used to buy your home, a second mortgage, a home equity loan, or a home equity line of credit (HELOC).
There are deduction limits here as well. If you incurred the mortgage indebtedness no later than December 14, 2017, interest can be deducted on loan amounts up to $1 million. However, interest on loans acquired after that date are deductible only up to $750,000. Excess interest paid will not be tax-deductible.
Investment interest includes interest paid on money borrowed to purchase taxable investments. A major category in this connection is margin interest paid for a brokerage account. Investment interest can be deducted up to the amount of your net taxable investment income for the year. Any interest not deductible in the current year can be carried forward to the next tax year.
Gifts to Charities
You can deduct charitable contributions, and there are generally no limits. However, any contribution of $250 or more requires written evidence. As well, non-cash contributions over $500 require that you also attach IRS Form 8283.
How To Calculate It: Valuing Your Non-Cash Donations Come Tax Time
Casualties and Theft Losses
You can deduct the losses sustained as a result of damage or destruction of personal property as well as theft losses. However, the losses must be in excess of 10% of your adjusted gross income, less $100 per event.
Casualty losses must be the result of sudden, unexpected, and unusual events. These include earthquakes, fires, floods, mine cave-ins, sonic booms, hurricanes and tornadoes, terrorist attacks, vandalism, and volcanic eruptions. Losses due to certain car accidents may also be deductible.
Theft losses include losses from embezzlement, extortion, robbery, fraud or misrepresentation, burglary, blackmail, and kidnapping for ransom.
Any losses sustained must be reduced by any insurance reimbursement you receive.
Other Itemized Deductions
These are deductions you report on Line 16 of Schedule A, and are basically permissible deductions not listed above. They include the following deductions:
- Gambling losses, to the extent of gambling winnings.
- Casualty and theft losses of income producing property.
- Federal estate tax on income in respect of a decedent.
- A deduction for amortizable bond premium.
- An ordinary loss attributed to a contingent payment debt instrument or inflation index debt instrument (like TIPS bonds).
- A deduction for repayment of amounts under a claim of rights if over $3,000.
- Certain unrecovered investments in pensions.
- Impairment related work expenses of a disabled person.
As you can see, the topic of tax deductions is pretty complicated. But if you use a good tax preparation software package, Like FreeTaxUSA all the work will be done for you. All you need to do is enter each deduction where it’s called for by the software, and the program will place it exactly where it needs to be, whether that’s above the line or below the line.
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Just be sure to keep accurate records of all deductible expenses. The software may be able to handle the mechanics of properly categorizing your deductions, but it will be up to you to come up with the numbers and the documentation to support them in case you’re audited by the IRS.