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Tax reminders for April 18

Chris Farrell Feb 7, 2011

April 18 is tax day. It isn’t all that far away. The folks at Grant Thornton LLP have a couple of reminders on managing the 2010 tax bill smartly.

Most important are the new rules, such as the self-employed can deduct their health insurance costs against both their income and their self-employment taxes. There are also timely reminders of classic steps that can be still be taken to lower your over all tax bill, such as making an IRA contribution if you qualify. My favorite warning, however is check your numbers twice. “Millions of returns also generate math error notices that often come as unwelcome surprises to unsuspecting taxpayers,” according to the experts Grant Thorton. “These problems can be a hassle to unwind.”

They even have a few suggestions for the 2011 tax year. Now, that gives me a headache.

The devil is always in the details when it comes to the federal income tax code. So, I’ll put the 11 reminders under the fold for those who want a reminder about the tax season.

What’s new for 2010?

  1. Self-employed health insurance costs are deductible against self-employment tax. For 2010, self-employed individuals may deduct their health insurance costs against both income and self-employment taxes.

  2. No itemized deduction or exemption phaseouts. Taxpayers with high incomes have suffered through phaseouts of their personal exemptions and itemized deductions in past years. These phaseouts are completely eliminated in 2010, so you can enjoy these tax benefits in full.

  3. Homebuyer credit. Congress extended a tax credit for homebuyers in 2010 to include purchases made by Sept. 30, 2010, if a binding contract was in place by April 30, 2010. The credit offers up to $8,000 for “first-time homebuyers” who did not own a principal residence in the three years before the purchase or $6,500 for “long-time residents” who owned a home that was their principal residence for five of the eight years before the purchase. The credit begins to phase out at income levels of $125,000 for singles and $225,000 joint filers. The house can’t cost more than $800,000.

What can I do right now to affect my 2010 return?

  1. Contribute to a traditional IRA. You can still get an above-the-line deduction for your 2010 return by contributing to a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA) now. This does not include a Roth Individual Retirement Account. You can make contributions that are deductible on your 2010 return any time before April 18, 2011 — and can even set up the account now if you don’t have one already. Contribution limits for 2010 are $5,000 plus a $1,000 catch up for those 50 and over, but contributions only offer deductions at income levels below $109,000 for joint filers and $66,000 for singles.

  2. Reconsider a Roth IRA rollover. The $100,000 income limit on rollovers from an IRA or 401(k) to a Roth IRA disappeared in 2010. This type of rollover allows you to pay tax on the conversion in exchange for no taxes in the future (if withdrawals are made properly). A special provision allows you to pay the taxes on a 2010 conversion in equal installments in 2011 and 2012. If you converted to a Roth IRA last year, keep an eye on the account to see whether it decreases in value. If it does, you may want to unwind the conversion and then reconvert to a Roth IRA. By doing so, you will pay taxes on the lower value, which means the taxes due as a result of the conversion will be lower. You can unwind the conversion as late as the due date of your 2010 income tax return. Thus, if you extend your return, you will have until Oct. 17, 2011, to unwind the conversion. You can then convert again to a Roth IRA, as long as you wait at least 31 days after unwinding the initial conversion to do so.

  3. Get your charitable house in order. A charitable cash contribution must be documented to be deductible. If you claim a charitable deduction of over $500 in donated property, you must attach Form 8283. If you are claiming a deduction of $250 or more for a car donation, you will need a contemporaneous written acknowledgement from the charity that includes a description of the car. Remember, you cannot deduct donations to individuals, social clubs, political groups or foreign organizations.

  4. Consider filing electronically. Filing electronically will speed up your refund and can save you from simple mistakes. Before the IRS accepts an electronic return, it checks for several critical errors. The IRS gives you the chance to correct the problems before it accepts and processes your electronic return.

  5. Check your numbers twice. Avoid math errors and make sure to get your Social Security numbers right. IRS computers automatically match all Social Security numbers and check for simple math mistakes. If you wrote down the wrong Social Security number for one of your dependents, the IRS will disallow the dependent, recalculate the return and usually send you a brand new tax bill. Millions of returns also generate math error notices that often come as unwelcome surprises to unsuspecting taxpayers. These problems can be a hassle to unwind.

  6. Don’t miss the deadline for filing an extension. Don’t bury your head in the sand if you’re not going to get your return filed on time. Filing for an automatic extension with Form 4868 is painless and will spare you penalties for missing the deadline. But remember, extending the filing deadline does not extend the time for making a contribution to an IRA, and it does not extend the time for payment. By the filing deadline, you must have paid at least 90 percent of your 2010 tax liability through withholding, estimated payments and any payment made with your extension.

What should I start thinking about for 2011?

  1. Recalculate your remodel. Lawmakers extended a tax credit for energy-efficient home improvements for 2011, but at a considerably less generous level. For 2011 you are only entitled to a 10 percent credit of up to $500 for installing energy-efficient property such as insulation, windows, roofs, fans, furnaces or water heaters (down from 30 percent and $1,500 in 2010). Don’t count on last year’s more generous tax credit when estimating your costs for a future remodel.

  2. Payroll tax deduction. Lawmakers enacted a one-year reduction in the employee portion of the Social Security tax in 2011 from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent. The reduction applies all the way up to the Social Security wage limit of $106,800 and reduces self-employment taxes from 15.3 percent to 13.3 percent. It does not affect the deduction for self-employment taxes. If you can afford it, consider using your tax savings to contribute to a tax-favored savings vehicle like a 401(k) retirement account or 529 education savings plan.

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