Willis Report: Exploring tax deductions

Willis Report: Exploring tax deductions

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NEW YORK -

If ever there was a year to look for deductions to your tax bill, this is it. The reason? Millions of Americans will be paying more because of higher tax levels imposed by Obamacare and the ironically named American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. But even if you aren't subject to the higher rates, it still pays to get all the breaks you can.

  • PRIVATE MORTGAGE INSURANCE

The home mortgage interest deduction is a perennial favorite of homeowners and while that deduction is now on a phase out schedule for high earners, others may benefit from the private mortgage interest deduction. PMI is an insurance policy that lenders require if you can't make a 20 percent down payment on a home. And, 2013 is the last year you'll be able to claim the deduction unless Congress changes its mind.

You'll find the amount of PMI you paid on your bank's mortgage interest form 1098. The break is available to homeowners who took out their mortgage after Jan. 1, 2007.

And, like a lot of deductions, this one has income phaseouts too. The sweet spot for this break is an adjusted gross income below $109,000.

  • CARING FOR A DEPENDENT PARENT

This is more complicated than it sounds, but if you can claim a parent as a dependent, you can save on taxes. Your parent must live with you and get more than half of his support from you. Keep in mind the parent's earnings must be less than the tax exemption level. The devil is in the details with this one and your should consult a tax professional, but if you meet the requirements, you'll be able to claim an added personal exemption on your income tax return.

An added plus, any medical expenses you pay for that parent can contribute to the threshold for deducting medical costs. To meet that threshold, you have to spend 10 percent or more of your adjusted gross income on medical expenses. (That threshold increased from 7.5 percent last year.

  • COLLEGE LOAN INTEREST

Parents struggling with the high cost of education will find they can deduct up to $2,500 of annual interest on loans to pay for college. Income phaseouts exist, naturally, so high earners might want to consider taking out a home-equity loan instead, which in most cases, will allow you to deduct interest.

  • HOME EQUITY LOAN INTEREST

You probably know that mortgage interest is deductible. Interest on mortgage debt up to $1 million is deductible, but phases out at higher income levels. Interest on home-equity loans totaling up to $100,000 also is deductible, no matter what you do with the money.

  • JOB SEARCH

If you were looking for a job last year as millions of Americans were, the costs of that job search are deductible. File them under miscellaneous expenses when you file. You don't have to be successful to claim the deductions. If you do land a new gig, you can also claim relocation expenses for the new job. Consult a pro to determine exactly what you can deduct.

There are more deductions -- many more -- but you should be aware that some of them are IRS audit bait. Here are a few of the deductions that might get you a second look, if not an audit:

  • Home office deductions. This one draws attention especially if you claim a salaried income.
  • Non cash charitable donations, especially if you donate a car to a charity,
  • Earned income tax credit. This benefit for low-wage earners is often abused and the IRS will take a close look.

When it comes to deductions, one of the things IRS auditors keep in mind is just how you stack up with other taxpayers. CCH Inc. recently calculated average deductions and while you shouldn't use these as a hard and fast guide to your own tax return, it makes sense to have a general idea of what people in your income bracket pay. For example, folks with an income range of $50,000 to $100,000, claim medical expenses of $7,312 interest of $9,320 and charitable contributions of $2,815. These households pay federal taxes of $6,111.

So the point, here, isn't to discourage you from the taking all the breaks that are due you. In fact, I say take absolutely everything you are eligible for. The IRS expects nothing less.

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