18 tax credits and deductions to take this year

Even the most organized people hate tax season, but this year Uncle Sam has a special present: two extra days to prepare. Taxpayers will have until Tuesday, April 17 to file their 2011 tax returns because April 15 falls on a Sunday, and Emancipation Day -- a holiday observed in the District of Columbia -- falls on Monday, April 16. According to federal law, D.C. holidays impact tax deadlines in the same way that federal holidays do. Therefore, all taxpayers will have two extra days to file this year. Taxpayers requesting an extension will have until October 15 to file their 2011 tax returns.

Now on to your returns: Claim these often overlooked deductions and credits and you just might be able to pay less money to the IRS.

Hooray for inflation, at least when it comes to tax preparation. When general prices rise, the IRS nudges up some of its limits. Here's what's new for 2011 returns:

-- Personal and dependent exemption: $3,700, up $50 from 2010.

-- Tax-bracket thresholds increase for each filing status: For a married couple filing a joint return, for example, the taxable-income threshold separating the 15 percent bracket from the 25 percent bracket is $69,000, up from $68,000 in 2010.

-- The maximum earned income tax credit (EITC): $5,751, up from $5,666 in 2010. The maximum income limit for the EITC rises to $49,078, up from $48,362 in 2010.

-- Cost-basis reporting by brokers: As of 2011, brokers must track clients' purchases of stock, real-estate investment trusts and foreign securities, and then report the original cost to the IRS when the asset is sold. This is an effort to improve tax compliance by investors. The rules for investments in mutual funds, bonds, options and many exchange-traded funds.

1. IRA/Roth Conversion: When you contribute to an individual retirement account (IRA), you help fund a future goal while lowering your current tax bill. In other words, socking cash in an IRA is like saving with help from your Uncle Sam.

The rules are pretty simple: You have until the tax-filing deadline (again, that's April 17) to contribute up the lesser of your taxable compensation for the year or $5,000 to a 2011 IRA ($6,000 if you are 50 or older). If you are self-employed, have a Keogh or SEP-IRA, and have filed for an extension to October 15, you can even wait until then to put 2011 money into those accounts.

Even if you're covered by a retirement plan at work, you can deduct some or all of your IRA contribution. The limits have increased for tax year 2011 modified adjusted gross income (AGI) as follows:

-- More than $92,000 but less than $112,000 for a married couple filing a joint return or a qualifying widow(er)

-- More than $58,000 but less than $68,000 for a single individual or head of household, or

-- Less than $10,000 for a married individual filing a separate return.

If your spouse is covered by a retirement plan at work but you are not, your deduction is phased out if your modified AGI is more than $173,000 but less than $183,000. If your modified AGI is $183,000 or more, you cannot take a deduction for contributions to a traditional IRA.

2. Roth IRA conversion: The income limit for Roth conversions was permanently removed, but taxpayers who converted to Roth IRAs in 2011 no longer have the option of deferring conversion income into later years, as was true for 2010 conversions. That means it's time to pay Uncle the taxes due on your conversion.

3. Itemized deductions and personal exemptions: The itemized deduction limitation is repealed for 2011 (and through 2012). This means that taxpayers can deduct the full amount of their itemized deductions in 2011. The personal exemption phase-out rules also do not apply through 2012.

Get the Credit(s) You Deserve

Tax credits are even better than deductions, because they lower your taxes dollar for dollar, instead of being calculated based on your tax bracket. If you are using last year's return as a guide, you should note that some credits, like the Making Work Pay credit, have expired. Still, there are plenty of other credits for taxpayers who qualify -- so don't miss them!

4. The Child Tax Credit is up to $1,000 for each qualifying child who was under the age of 17 at the end of 2011. This credit can be claimed in addition to the credit for child and dependent care expenses. For married taxpayers filing a joint return, the phase-out begins at $110,000. For married taxpayers filing a separate return, it begins at $55,000. For all other taxpayers, the phase-out begins at $75,000. (Details are in IRS Publication 972.)

5. The Earned Income Tax Credit is a refundable credit (meaning that even if your credit exceeds your tax liability, you don't lose the excess and are entitled to receive any overage as a refund) for married couples filing jointly with 2011 earned income under $49,078 and singles with income under $43,998. The IRS has created handy EITC calculator to help you determine whether you qualify for the credit. (Details are in IRS Publication 596.)

6. The Child and Dependent Care Credit is calculated based on your expenses paid for the care of your kids under age 13 to enable you to work or to look for work in 2011. The credit is 20 percent to 35 percent of your child-care expenses, up to $6,000 -- the size of your credit depends on your income. (Details are in IRS Publication 503.)

7. The Retirement Savings Contributions Credit is designed to help low- and moderate-income workers save for retirement. Individuals with incomes of up to $28,250 and married couples with joint incomes of up to $56,500 may qualify for a credit of up to $1,000 or up to $2,000 if filing jointly. Check out Form 8880 for the rules.

8. Energy and Appliance Tax Credit applies to taxpayers who made energy-efficiency improvements to their homes in 2011. You may be eligible for a tax credit of 10 percent for the cost, up to a maximum of $500. Approved improvements include new windows, insulation, high efficiency furnaces, water heaters and air conditioning, among many others, but you will need your receipts and manufacturer certification as back-up. (Energy Star has a list of items that qualify for the tax deduction).

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    Jill Schlesinger, CFP®, is the Editor-at-Large for CBS MoneyWatch. She covers the economy, markets, investing or anything else with a dollar sign. Prior to the launch of MoneyWatch in 2009, Jill was the chief investment officer for an independent investment advisory firm. In her infancy, she was an options trader on the Commodities Exchange of New York.

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