People often say that an expense is “a tax write-off”; most everyone interprets this to mean that the expense will have a tax benefit. Generally, such a benefit takes the form of either a deduction or a credit; these benefits’ effects are quite different, however, and each type has various categories. As a result, the tax implications may not be as expected. This is especially true when the write-off claim comes from a salesperson who is touting the tax benefits of a product or service, as such individuals often leave out key details. In general, a deduction reduces taxable income, whereas a credit reduces the tax itself.
Tax Deductions – In one way or another, tax deductions reduce the taxable portion of an individual’s income, which thus reduces the tax on that income.
Itemized Deductions – When taxpayers think of deductions, they typically think of the itemized deductions that are claimed on Schedule A. This is the only way to deduct personal expenses such as medical costs, state and local tax payments, investment and home-mortgage interest, charitable contributions, disaster-casualty losses, and various rarely encountered expenses. In some cases, itemized deductions are limited. For instance, medical expenses are only deductible to the extent they exceed 10% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income (AGI). Similarly, state and local tax payments (including those for income, sales, and property taxes) are capped at $10,000. On top of that, itemization only reduces taxable income to the extent that the total of the itemized deductions exceeds the standard deduction. When the sum does not exceed the standard deduction, the itemized deductible expenses provide no tax benefits at all.
Above-the-Line Deductions – Certain deductions actually reduce income. These are commonly called above-the-line deductions because, when applied, they reduce the income figure that is used to calculate AGI. Thus, their benefits apply regardless of whether the taxpayer uses itemized deductions. Above-the-line deductions include educators’ expenses; contributions to health savings accounts, traditional IRAs, and certain qualified retirement plans; deductible alimony payments; and student-loan interest. Most of these deductions have annual maximums.
Business Deductions – Taxpayers who operate noncorporate businesses can deduct from their business income any expenses that they incur when operating their businesses. These deductions (which cover advertising fees, employee wages, office-supply costs, etc.) are used to reduce profits, which in turn reduces taxable income and, ultimately, income tax. In addition, most self-employed taxpayers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on their net business income, so any reduction in their business profits also reduces their Medicare taxes and possibly their Social Security taxes.
Asset-Sale Deductions – An individual who sells an asset is allowed to deduct that asset’s cost from the sale price to determine the taxable profit. Good recordkeeping is helpful here because the original expense may have been incurred years prior, even though it is only deductible when the asset is sold. For example, any improvements that an individual makes to a home over years of ownership are not deductible until the home is sold. At that point, the individual can reduce the taxable gain from the sale by counting the improvements as part of the home’s cost.
Tax Credits – Tax credits come in several varieties, and the amount of benefit can vary:
Refundable Credits – A refundable credit offsets current tax liability; it is so called because any amount of unused credit is refunded to the taxpayer. Refundable credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Additional Child Tax Credit, and the Premium Tax Credit (net of any advances received), as well as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (an education credit that is 40% refundable). As a matter of general interest, these credits are subject to significant filing fraud because of their refundability. The IRS also considers prepayments such as income-tax withholding and estimated tax payments to be refundable credits.
Nonrefundable Credits – A nonrefundable credit only offsets tax liability; any unused amount is lost (unless it can be carried over to another year; see below). Over time, Congress has become more generous with credits; most credits that are not refundable now carry over for a given period. Nonrefundable credits include the Saver’s Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the personal portion of the Electric Vehicle Credit.
Carryover Credits – For some nonrefundable credits, any unused current-year credit can be carried over to the next tax year (or for a longer period) until the carryover amount is used up. These credits include the Adoption Credit (which can carry over for up to five years) and the Home-Solar Credit (which carries over through at least 2021; tax law is unclear on whether it will expire then).
Business-Tax Credits – Numerous business-tax credits are available; however, they are grouped into the General Business-Tax Credit, which is nonrefundable but which carries forward for twenty years and back for one year. (This allows a business owner to amend the prior year’s return so as to claim the credit.) This category includes the business portion of the Electric Vehicle Credit.
If you have questions related to how you might benefit from tax credits or deductions, please call our office.