Are your finances pretty simple just wages, retirement contributions, a little investment income, and maybe a deduction for mortgage interest and taxes? Is your tax situation for '96 pretty much as it was in '95?
If so, you're a candidate for doing your own tax returns instead of waiting in line to pay a tax preparer. Get a hand calculator, your copy of last year's tax return, the instruction booklet that came with your tax form in the mail, and a box of chocolates, for strength.
I've found that the chocolates help, particularly.
Using last year's return as a model, fill in the same blanks on this year's return but with the numbers for 1996. Check the other blanks, just to see if there's something you should add.
As usual, there are a few new things to claim or deduct. Here are the principal ones, all of them small:
- Higher standard deductions. Singles can automatically deduct $4,000; married couples, $6,700; and single heads of household, $5,900. Itemize your deductions only if they exceed these amounts.
- Higher personal exemptions. You can write off $2,550 this year, for yourself and each dependent. This tax break phases out for couples with adjusted gross incomes higher than $176,950 and singles over $117,950.
- For some, a higher Social Security tax. You're taxed on your first $62,700 of earnings, up from $61,200 in 1995. Employees earning $62,700 or more owe an extra $93; self-employed owe an extra $186 (half of which is deductible).
- Identification numbers for dependents. You need a Social Security number for each dependent except for children born last December. For them, write in "12/96.''
- New identification numbers for those not eligible for a Social Security number. This covers any dependent living outside the United States and certain resident aliens. You'll need an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN). To get one, file Form W-7. It usually takes about a month.
These ITINs are required if you're filing your own return or if you're claimed as a dependent on someone else's return.
- Higher earned-income credits for low-wage workers. You probably qualify if (1) you have no young children, earned less than $9,500 and you or your spouse are at least 25; (2) you have one child and earned less than $25,078; (3) you have more than one child and earned less than $28,495.
Regardless of earnings, however, you're now barred from the credit if your income from investments such as interest or dividends exceeds $2,200.
- A tax break on undergraduate tuition paid by your employer. Up to $5,250 of qualified benefits can be excluded from your income. This happens automatically. The payments will not be reported as income on your W-2 form. Tax-free company aid for graduate-level courses, however, ended June 30, 1996.
The tuition tax break is retroactive to 1995, for graduate students as well as undergraduates. If you were taxed on tuition assistance in 1995 then, you're owed a refund.
To collect it, ask your employer for a corrected 1995 wage form(Form W-2c) and send it to the IRS attached to Form 1040X (the form used for amending tax returns).
- No more tax grabs at pensions. A new law, effective in 1996, stops states from taxing the pensions of former residents who now live in other states. This was a particular problem for retirees leaving California, but other states had been chasing pensions, too.
- Help for last-minute filers. You no longer have to stand in line at the post office, to have your tax return postmarked on April 15. Instead, you can use an approved overnight delivery service. The IRS hasn't officially approved any yet, but the final list will doubtlessly include such well-known names as Airborne Express and Federal Express.
- A higher deduction if you drive on business. You now get 31 cents a mile, up from 30 cents on your 1995 returns.
If you itemize personal deductions, take 12 cents a mile when you're doing volunteer work for a charity. It's 10 cents a mile, for tax-deductible moving expenses and when you travel to obtain medical care.
- A new tax on insurance. Employers sometimes pay for life insurance on their employees. If they die, the first $5,000 in benefits has been tax-free. It's now all taxable, however, for the beneficiaries of workers who died after Aug. 20, 1996.
- Be prepared for extra taxes, if you were laid off last year. Severance pay, cash payments to encourage you to quit, unemployment pay and withdrawals from a tax-deferred retirement plan are all taxable. You'll owe a 10 percent penalty on those pension withdrawals, if you're under 59 and a half.
Tax breaks for '97
Last year's tax law created a lot of new tax breaks effective this year.
They're not for the 1996 return that you're preparing now. You'll deduct them next year, on your 1997 return. But if you can use them, they're money in your pocket today:
- For couples where only one spouse has a paycheck. There's a new Individual Retirement Account for the nonworking spouse.
On your 1996 return, you and your spouse both get IRA deductions but together they can't exceed $2,225 (with a maximum of $2,000 in one of the accounts).
For 1997, however, the new spousal IRA lets you contribute and tax deduct up to $2,000 each $4,000 in all. That puts you on an equal footing with two-paycheck couples.
Start that spousal IRA now. The sooner you make contributions, the more your account can earn.
- For the self-employed. You'll be able to tax deduct 40 percent of your health insurance premium this year, up from 30 percent on your 1996 return.
-For people who buy qualified long-term care insurance. Part of your premiums are now deductible as a medical expense, if you itemize on your tax return. The amount depends on your age. At 40, you get a $200 deduction. At 70, you get $2,000.
Syndicated columnist Jane Bryant Quinn can be reached in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200.
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