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Tax Deductions: Can You Tell If These Are Legit?

Kevin McCormally, Chief Content Officer, Kiplinger Washington Editors
Tax Deductions: Can You Tell If These Are Legit?

The government itself estimates that individuals and businesses spend more than 6 billion hours a year dealing with their tax returns and all the decisions that go into them. (Yes, that's billion with a "b.") That's about how many hours 3 million full-time workers spend on their jobs each year.

We can't change the law, but we can help you understand it and make the best of it. When it comes to how much tax you must pay, knowledge really is power. Take a look at these frequently asked tax questions from visitors to Kiplinger.com. See if you can separate the legitimate deductions from the ones that would trigger a "not so fast, buddy" response from the IRS.

We hope this quiz gives you some ideas for lowering your taxes throughout the year. Good luck!

1: You accept a new job that requires you to move. You can write off your moving costs even if you don't itemize.

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is A. A. True

Job-related moving expenses are an "above-the-line" deduction; you can deduct them even if you take the standard deduction on your tax return. You do have to use the long form 1040 and report your expenses on a Form 3903, but you don't have to itemize deductions. (To qualify for this deduction, you new workplace has to be at least 50 miles farther from your old home than your old job was.)

If you do itemize, you may also be able to deduct your job-hunting costs, such as career counseling, resume printing and travel expenses to job interviews. Such costs are considered miscellaneous expenses and are deductible to the extent all miscellaneous expenses exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income.

While moving expenses are deductible for getting to your first or any subsequent job, job-hunting costs don't count when getting your first job. After that, such expenses are deductible as long as you're looking for a job in the same line of work (even if you don't succeed in getting a new job).

2: You are volunteering your services as a carpenter to a non-profit community home-builder. Nice tax deduction, right?

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is B. B. False

There is no deduction for the value of your time or labor donated to a charity. (Think about it: If you were paid for your labor, you'd have to add that amount to your taxable income. If you then turned around and donated the cash back to the charity, you would earn a charitable deduction to offset the tax bill on the income. The no pay/no deduction rule leaves you in the same position.)

But you can deduct the cost of any materials you donate and 14 cents per mile for using your car in connection with your charitable work.

3: Alimony is tax deductible.

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is A. A. True

You can deduct alimony you pay an ex-spouse, even if you don't itemize. To qualify as alimony, the cash-only payments must be spelled out in your divorce agreement. You're required to report the Social Security number of your ex-spouse, too, so the IRS can make sure he or she reports the alimony as taxable income

4: Court-ordered child care support payments are deductible.

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is B. B. False

Unlike alimony, the payer doesn't get a deduction; nor does the recipient pay income tax on the money.

5: Your children attend private elementary schools and private high schools. Is their tuition tax-deductible?

  1. A. Yes
  2. B. No

The correct answer is B. B. No

You can't deduct the cost of elementary or secondary school tuition. But there is one tax break that can help cover those bills. Coverdell Educational Savings Accounts permit taxpayers to contribute to an account from which withdrawals (including earnings) can be used tax free to pay for qualified education expenses including tuition, books, supplies, and uniforms. Up to $2,000 a year can be deposited in a Coverdell for any number of beneficiaries. Contributions are not deductible, but withdrawals can be used for elementary and high school expenses as well as for the cost of higher education. Taxpayers with AGI over $110,000 on a single return or $220,000 on a joint return can't contribute to a Coverdell.

6: I paid more than $20,000 in commission when I sold my home. I must be able to deduct that expense, right?

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is B. B. False

False is the correct answer, but the commission may have a tax impact. Your profit or loss on the sale depends on the proceeds of the sale, which is the sales price minus expenses such as that commission. Most home sale profits are tax free thanks to the rule that ignores up to $250,000 of profit for singles and up to $500,000 of gain for married couples if the sellers owned and lived in the house as their principal residence for at least two of the five years leading up to the sale.

7: You can deduct the taxes you pay to your state on your federal income tax return even if you don't itemize your deductions.

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is B. B. False

You must itemize to deduct the state taxes you pay. You can deduct either state income taxes or state sales taxes, whichever gives you the bigger write off.

8: You spent a few weekends in Vegas last year. One weekend, you won money. For the rest, your wallet came back a little worse for wear. Luckily gambling losses are tax deductible.

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is A. A. True

You can deduct losses ... but only to the extent of the gambling winnings you report as taxable income. And, while the law calls for all gamblers to report 100% of their winnings, only the 25% or so of taxpayers who itemize get the chance to deduct losses. Those who use the standard deduction don't get this tax break.

One bright spot: Although gambling losses are considered miscellaneous expenses to be deducted on Schedule A of the Form 1040, this write-off is not restricted by the rule that generally allows miscellaneous expenses only to the extent they total more than 2% of your adjusted gross income. Gambling losses are deductible dollar for dollar, up to the amount of winnings reported.

9: You have made a large number of charitable donations in one year. Sky's the limit on doing good--and cutting down taxable income, right?

  1. A. True
  2. B. False

The correct answer is B. B. False

As far as Congress is concerned, it is possible to be too generous. Generally, your deduction for donations to charity in one year cannot exceed 50% of your adjusted gross income for that year (30% in the case of donations of appreciated assets and contributions to private foundations). But any excess can be carried over for up to five tax years to deliver the tax break you're due.

10: When you donate your old car to charity, what's the write-off?

  1. A. Kelly Blue Book value
  2. B. Price at which the donated car is sold by the charity

The correct answer is B. B. Price at which the donated car is sold by the charity

In most cases, your deduction is limited to the price paid for the vehicle when it is sold by the charity to raise cash. But, there's a notable exception:

If the charity uses the vehicle in its mission (to deliver meals to the needy, for example) or fixes it up and gives it (or sells it for less than market value) to a needy family, you are allowed to claim a deduction equal to the vehicle's fair market value (check used car guidebooks or Web sites). That could produce a bigger write-off since the value a charity gets at auction is likely to be a lower wholesale or even fire-sale price.

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