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You were blissfully unaware of it, but taxes became a part of your life on the day you were born.
From that beginning as a spanking-new tax break for Mom and Dad, taxes have had an important role in all your major life events, from getting a job, saying “I do,” buying and selling homes, having kids of your own and even retiring.
In some cases, the involvement of the IRS is not such a good thing.
But in many ways, the tax code can be your best friend. You just need to know how it applies to your personal circumstances so you can take advantage of it. Read on to learn more about tax breaks for life’s big events.
Getting Your First Job
Uncle Sam gets a portion of your paycheck via payroll taxes. You do, however, have a bit of a say in how much comes out of your pay by adjusting your withholding.
If you have too much withheld, you’ll get a refund when you file. That’s not necessarily bad, but wouldn’t you rather have your own money year-round instead of giving the IRS an interest-free loan?
On the other hand, if you don’t have enough taken out, you could face a major tax bill, and possible underwithholding penalties, at filing time. Ask your boss for a new Form W-4 so you can run the numbers and adjust your withholding. You can change your withholding amount as often as you need to get your tax amount just right.
Your job likely offers several tax breaks. If your employer provides health care coverage, your medical insurance is a tax-free benefit to you. You’ll find out how much that’s worth on your W-2 earnings statement.
A flexible spending account, or FSA, also might be part of your job benefits. Here you can save pretax dollars to pay for medical care not covered by insurance.
You also want to take advantage of your workplace’s tax-deferred 401(k) retirement plan.
And if you move to take a job, even your first one, you can write off many of your relocation costs.
Uncle Sam probably wasn’t a guest at your wedding, but he becomes a big part of your life when you are a married taxpayer.
Most couples filed jointly because it generally produces the best tax result.
If both partners work, coordination of employer fringe benefits after marriage is key, says Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.
Reassess your individual retirement accounts. Your new combined income could affect your retirement contributions. Income limits apply to tax-free Roth accounts and also to how much of a traditional IRA contribution you can deduct if you or your spouse put money into a workplace retirement plan.
Marriage also is one of the changes in family circumstances that allows you to revisit your tax-favored FSA. Newlyweds also should reevaluate how much each has withheld from their paychecks.
And what about your once-in-a-lifetime honeymoon? The tax code’s annual gift exclusion amount for 2017 is $14,000, the same as it was for 2016. It’s usually adjusted annually for inflation.
That means both a well-to-do mom and dad could give each newlywed $28,000 or a combined total of $56,000 to the wedded couple. That definitely would pay for an extravagant post-ceremony getaway.
Congratulations on your new baby. Let Uncle Sam help cover some of your growing family’s costs.
A dependent youngster is an added exemption. Kids also allow parents to claim the child-tax credit as long as the youngster was 16 at the end of the tax year. Large families might be able to get money back from the IRS via the refundable additional child-tax credit.
If your family grew via an adoption, there’s a tax credit to cover some of the many costs of that process.
Working parents can use the child- and dependent-care credit to pay for some of the costs of caring for their kids while they are on the job.
And the tax code also offers several ways to save and pay for higher education costs, including 529 college savings plans, the Coverdell Education Savings Account and the American opportunity and lifetime learning tax credits.
Starting a Business
Once you decide it’s time to break out of the corporate cubicle and start a new business, the tax code can help.
Filing is relatively easy for sole proprietors. They report their income as part of their annual individual tax filing by attaching Schedule C to Form 1040. Schedule C also offers many ways for individual entrepreneurs to write off many of their business expenses.
Among the deductible small-business costs are home office expenses. Business use of a vehicle also is deductible, as are health insurance premiums and contributions to self-employed retirement plans. New businesses also are allowed to deduct thousands in certain startup costs.
If you have kids, putting them to work in your sole proprietorship could be a tax-smart move. Depending on how much you pay them, they might not owe income taxes and you can deduct the salary as a business expense.
But starting a business is not all about tax breaks. Sole proprietors also must pay self-employment taxes. These are the equivalent of the payroll taxes collected from wage-earning employees. As both the employer and employee, a sole proprietor has to pay the boss and worker components of Social Security and Medicare taxes.
And running your own business usually means you must file more tax forms, including estimated tax payments four times a year.
Buying a Home
Your home is probably your biggest investment. Homeownership also provides many tax breaks.
Interest paid on a primary residence mortgage up to $1 million is deductible as an itemized expense. If you take out a home equity loan or line of credit, interest on those loans up to $100,000 also is deductible. Even the interest on a second home is tax-deductible.
Property tax you pay on your main house — and any other residences you own — also is deductible.
The tax benefit of a home is even better when you sell it. Up to $250,000 in sales gain ($500,000 for married joint filers) on your home is tax-free, as long as you owned the property for two years and lived in it for two of the five years before the sale.
Many home improvements, such as structural additions, kitchen modernization and landscaping, can increase the basis in your home. This is essentially your investment in the home. A larger basis means less profit that might be taxable.
And some home upgrades, such as installing solar energy systems, also will get you an immediate tax credit to help offset the high cost of this type of improvement.
Dealing with Divorce
As with marriage, your filing status is determined on the last day of the tax year. If your divorce is final on Dec. 31, then you are considered unmarried for the full year.
One of the stickiest divorce issues is child custody. The parent who has physical custody of the children for most of the year usually gets to claim them as dependents. That means that parent gets the exemption, child-tax credit and child-care tax credit savings.
One spouse typically is granted sole ownership of the family home. This could, however, pose a problem for the solo owner. When the lone ex sells the property, the amount of profit exempt from capital gains is just $250,000 versus the $500,000 that married filing jointly homeowners can exclude. Because of that, some couples sell the house before they divorce and split the tax-free profits.
Similarly, take into account the cash the recipient partner will net after taxes when dividing other marital assets.
And note that alimony has tax implications for both ex-spouses. It is taxable income to the recipient and can be deducted by the paying ex. Child support, however, offers no tax breaks to the paying ex, as it is not deductible. However, to the recipient, it isn’t taxable.
Your golden years will be more enjoyable if you take advantage of the many tax breaks afforded by retirement plans.
A traditional IRA contribution could produce a tax deduction when you file your tax return. Remember, though, that you’ll have to pay taxes on this account when you start taking out money in retirement.
With a Roth IRA, you put in already-taxed money, but that means eventual distributions from a Roth are tax-free. The biggest drawback to a Roth is that you can’t open or contribute to a Roth if you make a lot of money. However, regardless of your income, you can convert a traditional IRA to a Roth.
Workplace retirement plans, usually known as 401(k)s or Roth 401(k)s, offer similar retirement saving options, but with a nice bonus. Many employers match some of your plan contributions, which helps your retirement savings grow more quickly.
Social Security benefits generally are tax-free as long as you don’t have a lot of other income.
And if you do have to file a tax return when you’re older, you can claim a larger standard deduction amount simply because you’re age 65 or older.
Paul S. Herman CPA, a tax expert for individuals and businesses, is the founder of Herman & Company, CPA’s PC in White Plains, New York. He provides guidance and strategies to improve clients’ financial well-being.