There weren't many changes with income-tax legislation in 2007, but there's always something going on in Washington – an odd twist here or a screwball trap there.
So it pays to, well, pay attention to what's new as the April 15 filing deadline draws closer. You might not have been reading yourself to sleep at night with fresh copies of changes to the Internal Revenue Code. But Barbara Weltman and Mark Steber were. They are, respectively, a contributing editor to JK Lasser's tax guides, and an expert on taxes at Jackson Hewitt Tax Service, and it's their job to stay on top of this sort of stuff.
Without further ado, here are seven tax tips they have that will help satisfy both you and the IRS:
1. Be careful with charitable contributions.
The government has really tightened up in this arena, which is one where folks could easily make mistakes and write in wrong amounts.
Now, the IRS requires that you be able to provide documentation for any contribution, regardless of how large or small.
"You can no longer take a deduction for the cash that you throw into the collection plate or Salvation Army bucket," says Ms. Weltman. If the contribution is under $250, she says, a canceled check will provide adequate evidence. More than that requires an acknowledgment from the charity. Charities are aware of this change, so this shouldn't be a problem.
2. Mortgage-insurance premiums now deductible.
If you buy a home and put down less than 20 percent of the purchase price, lenders typically require you to buy private mortgage insurance (PMI) to cover their bet. In past years, amounts paid on PMI were not tax deductible. But that changed in 2007, so if you bought a house last year, or refinanced, and paid PMI, then Weltman says you can deduct PMI premiums.
Sorry, folks, but this doesn't apply to mortgage transactions that occurred before 2007. As with most deductions, there is a phase-out of this tax break as income rises.
3. Troubled homeowners get a little mortgage forgiveness.
We've all read about the meltdown in the housing market. Some of us may have been stung by a foreclosure, or at least know someone in that situation. Here's where the Mortgage Forgiveness Debt Relief Act of 2007 enters the picture. Until it came along, when a lender forgave any of the debt owed to it on a home, that amount was treated as taxable income. But in legislation that President Bush signed on Dec. 20, that's no longer the case, at least with a primary residence and where less than $2 million is involved.
The president had this to say about the bill, as he signed it: "When your house is losing value and your family is under financial stress, the last thing you need is to be hit with higher taxes."
4. File electronically.
Mr. Steber really, really favors this method of getting your return to the IRS, since it saves time, gives the taxpayer verification that their return has been received, and can catch a lot of little mistakes, such as mismatches in Social Security numbers, or even some math errors. "Be sure that if you do nothing else that you file your tax return electronically," says Mr. Steber. 'Nuf said.
5. Energy tax credit evaporates
The curtain fell on this tax credit at the close of 2007. But if you spent money last year on a wide range of environmentally friendly home improvements – windows, insulation, heat pumps, even skylights – you may be eligible for a credit of as much as $500. The enhancements had to be made at your primary residence.
Manufacturers or installers of qualifying equipment should have clued you into this break. And they should have provided proper documentation. To double check, visit www.energystar.gov, a website sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency. It discusses ins and outs of the credit.
The same 2005 law that ushered in this credit also granted a tax break to buyers of energy-efficient and hybrid vehicles. Most of these credits have been used up by now, but a few may exist. Again, the website, as well as auto dealers, will provide information on which models may still qualify for this subsidy.
6. Reduce college costs.
Yes, college costs a lot. Thankfully, Congress is sympathetic to students' plight, and Steber estimates that there are at least a dozen tax breaks for those pursuing a higher education. Some, such as the Hope Scholarship or Lifetime Learning, are tax credits, which are better than deductions because they mean a dollar-for-dollar cut in taxes owed. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators has a lengthy discussion about students and taxes on its website, www.nasfaa.org. And the IRS weighs in on this topic with its Publication 970.
7. Step up for the stimulus.
Last, but not least, is the economic-stimulus package approved by Congress and the president in early February. This provides between $300 and $600 to individuals who have qualifying income as low as $3,000. "Qualifying" could be Social Security payments, pensions, dividends, and not necessarily wage income. A good explanation of what qualifies can be found in the center of the home page of the IRS website, www.irs.gov.
To claim the rebate, most taxpayers don't have to do anything beyond filing a return. But millions of Americans don't file returns every year because their income is too low or exempt from taxes (some bond payments, for instance). The only way the government will know to pay you this stimulus money is if you file. The IRS won't hit you up for taxes you don't legally owe; it just wants to see that you have qualifying income. Payments will start being made in May.