Whenever tax season rolls around, I often see some of the same questions hit my inbox like what’s my tax bracket? , when are taxes tax due  this year?, and others like it. It’s not surprising considering how complicated the tax code is (like the English language, exceptions are the rule) and one of the common questions I see is about deductions.
In general, a tax deduction is an amount you can deduct from your income to arrive at your adjusted gross income, which is used to calculate your tax liability. Anyone can claim the standard deduction, which is a flat amount based on your filing status, and that requires no support documentation. Alternatively, you can opt to itemize your deductions which means you forgo the flat standard deduction and instead will itemize, or list out, all your deductions (and along with it, supporting documentation).
Certain expenses are allowable if you itemize deductions, such as charitable contributions, but not if you claim the standard deduction. If you claim the standard deduction and make a donation to your favorite charity, you don’t get the tax deduction for that contribution. Most tax preparation software will help you calculate your deduction if you were to itemize, compare it with what you are eligible for as a standard deduction, and choose the best one for you.
2011 Standard Deduction
For Tax Year 2011, the standard deduction for each of the filing statuses is:
|Filing Status||Standard Deduction|
|Head of Household||$8,500|
|Married Filing Jointly||$11,600|
|Qualifying widow or Widower||$11,600|
|Married Filing Separately||$5,800|
The standard deduction can be higher based on certain characteristics  but for most these figures are accurate.
The most common itemized deductions are charitable contributions, mortgage and home equity loan interest, property taxes, and state income taxes (state sales taxes for those who have no state income taxes, as you have a choice). While the list of itemized deductions is exceptionally long, you are often spared knowing it because tax preparation software will take care of it for you. In order to claim itemized deductions, you’ll have to file a Form 1040  (you can’t use the 1040EZ) and attached a Schedule A (again, use software and this is handled for you… software rules!).
One key difference between the standard deduction and itemizing deductions is that with the itemized deductions, you will have expended that money. In other words, you paid mortgage interest and are claiming it as a deduction after the fact. With the standard deduction, you didn’t. This is best explained in an example involving a home.
Let’s say you own a home on which you pay $11,600 a year in mortgage interest, which happens to be the amount of the standard deduction for a married filing jointly couple. You and your spouse come into a windfall and are considering paying off your mortgage but you’re curious what the tax benefit would be. If you paid $11,600 this year in mortgage interest, you could claim it on your taxes and, assuming you were in the 25% tax bracket , get $2900 off your taxes because of the deduction. If you were to pay off the loan and claim the standard deduction, you’d still get $2900 off your taxes because of the deduction (25% of the standard deduction of $11,600) but you’d also retain $11,600 in your pocket because you never paid interest in the first place. You’re ahead by $14,500. This is an unrealistic example, as you’d probably have state income taxes and you’d definitely have property taxes, but I think you get the picture. This is the reason why I think the mortgage interest deduction  isn’t as awesome as everyone makes it out to be.
That about covers the main ideas behind the standard and itemized deductions, I hope that answers some of the questions out there!
(Photo: teegardin )