Some new relief is in the offing as Americans file 2008 taxes

By 
Carole Feldman, Associated Press
Mar. 5, 2009

If you're a first-time home buyer, victim of a natural disaster, or if you installed a small wind turbine in your backyard to generate electricity, you could find some tax relief when you file your 2008 return.

There also are new incentives to save for retirement, and some popular tax breaks have been renewed.

Start filling out your taxes, in fact, and you might find, "The IRS really gives me an opportunity to save some money this year,'' said Jeff Schnepper, MSN tax expert and author of books on taxes and finance.

Knowing what to look for is key. "The tax code is convoluted, complicated, and even the tax pros aren't sure,'' he said.

The Internal Revenue Service makes this suggestion: "Just make sure you're not overlooking anything,'' said Terry Lemons, senior spokesman for the agency.

Some of the changes this year are aimed at helping homeowners &endash; and stimulating the economy during what some analysts say could become the longest recession since the Great Depression.

First-time homebuyers are eligible for a maximum credit of $7,500. But there's a catch: The credit is actually an interest-free loan that must be paid back over 15 years. If you take the full credit, you will have to pay back $500 a year. If you sell the house before the 15 years is up, the full amount will be due.

To qualify, taxpayers cannot have owned a home in the previous three years and must use the property as their principal residence. The home must have been purchased between April 8, 2008 and July 1, 2009.

Like many tax credits, this one is phased out at higher incomes. Use Form 5405 to file.

A homeowner who doesn't itemize will be able to get an additional standard deduction up to $500 - or $1,000 for joint filers - for state or local real estate taxes. Before, you could only take a deduction for these taxes if you itemized. This is expected to help the elderly and others who have paid off their mortgages and no longer have mortgage interest to deduct. That deduction often is the kicker for itemization.

If you were the victim of a federally declared natural disaster in 2008, you also can increase your standard deduction by your net loss.

For all taxpayers, the standard deduction is increasing - to $10,900 for married couples filing a joint return, $5,450 for singles and married filing separately, and $8,000 for heads of household.

The value of a personal exemption also is rising: to $3,500, up $100 from 2007.

The higher standard deduction and personal exemption were put in place to account for inflation.

Last year, more than 155 million individual tax returns were filed. More than half were filed electronically, either by a software preparer or from a home computer. The average refund was $2,429.

The IRS expects e-filing to increase this year, especially as it expands its Free File program and providers of tax preparation software drop fees. To be eligible for Free File, you must have an adjusted gross income of $56,000 or less. The program in essence interviews you and helps walk you through filing.

However, there's another option if your income is above that. Free File Fillable Tax Forms are basically paper tax forms on the computer. You put in the data on your own and the program does the basic math. You can file it electronically regardless of income.

"It may be just right for those who are comfortable with the tax law or those who use electronic software to prepare their returns but file using paper forms,'' the IRS says.

Electronic filing, experts say, has a couple of key advantages: more accurate returns and quicker refunds. The IRS says the system safeguards a taxpayer's personal information, a view echoed by Bob Meighan, vice president of Intuit Inc.'s Consumer Tax Group. The company publishes the tax-preparation software TurboTax.

MSN's Schnepper says he's "less than secure with the system.'' Still, he says, "e-filing is the wave of the future.''

In any case, he advises, keep good records. "What I tell my clients is get receipts for everything that's deductible,'' he said. Although you don't have to submit them to the IRS, you need a check or written receipt for every charitable contribution.

And don't rush, says Lemons. "Your tax return is an important financial document and you want to do it right,'' he says.

Keep an eye out for credits you may be entitled to, especially given the economic turmoil. "We could see people who qualify for those who wouldn't in previous years,'' says Lemons.

Consider the Recovery Rebate Credit. Most people probably know it as the stimulus checks distributed last year, based on income reported on 2007 returns.

People who lost their job or otherwise took a financial hit in 2008 may be eligible for the rebate now, even if they weren't last year. Or, if they received less than the full rebate &endash; $600 for an individual, $1,200 for married people filing jointly and $300 for each child &endash; they may be able to collect the remainder.

The IRS will figure the rebate for you, or you can do it yourself, using the Recovery Rebate Credit Calculator on the IRS Web site or the worksheet included in instructions for Form 1040.

"Instead of getting a separate check, it will be a refundable credit on your return,'' says Jackie Perlman, senior tax researcher at H&R Block, Inc.

More people also could end up qualifying for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which is designed to offset the cost of Social Security contributions for low- and moderate-income workers. The credit is refundable - you still can get it even if you owe no tax. The IRS has estimated that a quarter of those eligible for the credit don't take it. The maximum credit has increased, to $4,824, as has the maximum amount you can earn and still be eligible: $41,646. Both figures apply to those with two or more children.

There's also a tax break for people who lost homes to foreclosure. It used to be that the debt forgiven by the bank was taxed as income. Like last year, however, forgiven mortgage debt up to $2 million is not taxable.

Another credit has disappeared - for one year only. You can no longer get a credit for energy efficient water heaters, furnaces, windows or other items. However, if you installed a small wind turbine, solar panels, fuel cells or a geothermal heat pump to generate energy you may be able to get a credit for part of the cost. Wind-produced energy was added for 2008 to the alternative energy sources under the Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit.

For the middle-class taxpayer, Congress once again has approved a patch for the Alternative Minimum Tax, raising the exemption to $69,950 for a married couple filing jointly, and $46,200 for singles and heads of households. The AMT was designed to make sure that the wealthiest Americans pay taxes, but ended up hitting middle-income taxpayers as well. Without the patch, which adjusts for inflation, more people would have been hit.

Those who try to shelter investment by putting it in their children's names should beware. There's a change in the kiddie tax. Previously, only children under age 18 were affected. That was expanded this year to affect children under 24. See Form 8615 for more information.

Information about 2008 taxes, deductions and credits is available on the IRS Web site, irs.gov.

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