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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By David Muhlbaum, Senior Online Editor
| September 11, 2018
One of the biggest changes the new tax law brings is a near doubling of the standard deduction to $12,000 on single returns, $18,000 for head-of-household filers and $24,000 on joint returns … up from $6,350, $9,350 and $12,700 in 2017. Individuals age 65 or older and blind people continue to get an additional standard deduction of $1,300 more per person ($1,600 if unmarried).
Congressional analysts say bulking up the standard deduction will let more than 30 million taxpayers avoid the hassle of itemizing write-offs on their tax return because the bigger standard deduction would exceed their qualifying expenses.
But there's a handful of tax breaks that people taking the standard deduction can still claim to lower their tax bills. Most of these so-called “above-the-line” deductions have no income limits, so anybody can claim them. And in addition to the direct tax savings from these breaks—for taxpayers in the 24% tax bracket, for instance, every $1,000 in above-the-line deductions will lower your tax bill by $240—your lowered AGI could enable you to claim other tax breaks that have income limits.
Some almost everyone should take advantage of. Others are, well, a bit obscure.
Contributing to a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) is a win-win move that lets you boost your retirement savings and trim your tax bill at the same time. The contribution limit is $5,500 ($6,500 if you’re 50 or older) for 2018, and if you don't have a retirement plan at work (or your spouse does), every dollar of that can be knocked off you income. If you’re covered by a retirement plan at the office (or your spouse is) then that deduction might be limited by your income; check the limits at the IRS.
You may make 2018 IRA contributions up until April 15, 2019.
Are you funding a health savings account (HSA) in conjunction with a high-deductible health plan (HDHP)? Smart move.
You get an above-the-line deduction for contributions to the HSA, assuming you made them with after-tax money. If you contributed pretax funds through payroll deduction on the job, there’s no double-dipping—so no write off. In either case, you need to file a Form 8889 with your return. The maximum contribution for 2018 is $6,900 for family coverage and $3,450 if you’re an individual. If you’re 55 or over at any time in the year, you can contribute (and deduct) another $1,000.
Also deductible as an adjustment to income: the cost of health insurance for the self-employed (and their families)—including Medicare premiums and supplemental Medicare (medigap), up to your business' net income. You can’t claim this deduction if you are eligible to be covered under a health plan subsidized either 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).
You can deduct alimony you pay to a former spouse as long as the monetary payments are spelled out in your divorce agreement. You must report your ex-spouse’s Social Security number, so the IRS can make sure he or she reports the same amount as taxable income. (Child support, however, is not deductible.)
The new tax law eliminates this deduction for agreements signed after December 31, 2018. For agreements signed before then, the deduction continues.
Up to $2,500 in student-loan interest (for you, your spouse or a dependent) can be tax-deductible on 2018 returns if your modified adjusted gross income is less than $65,000 if you’re single or $135,000 if you are married and file a joint return. The deduction is phased out above those levels, disappearing completely if you earn more than $80,000 if single or $165,000 if filing a joint return.
Tax reform did away with almost all employee deductions that were taken on Schedule A by itemizers. But in certain lines of work, under certain conditions, you can still knock off some of your costs above the line. Here are those niches:
Did you break into a certificate of deposit (CD) early and get slapped by a bank penalty? Bank penalties can vary widely, but one thing is constant: You can deduct the penalty, no matter how lenient or how stiff, as an adjustment to income. A Form 1099-INT or Form 1099-OID from the bank will show the amount of any penalty you paid.
The new tax law killed this break, but with one significant exception: If you’re in the armed forces, the cost of any move associated with a permanent change of station still qualifies. You can deduct the cost of getting yourself and your household goods to the new location. If you drove your own car for a move in 2018, deduct 18 cents a mile plus what you paid for parking and tolls. (Use Form 3903 to tally your moving deductions.)