The standard deduction is a preset amount that you are allowed to deduct from your taxable income each year. This amount will vary according to your tax filing status and has been indexed annually to keep up with inflation. For 2019 taxes, the standard deduction is $12,200 for singles, $18,350 for heads of household and $24,400 for married filing jointly taxpayers. For 2020 taxes, the standard deductions rise to $12,400, $18,650 and $24,800 respectively for these three filing groups. The standard deductions were nearly doubled with changes brought about by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
Standard vs. Itemized Deductions
Prior to the passage of TCJA, millions of taxpayers were able to claim a larger deduction on their tax returns by itemizing their deductions – but thanks to higher standard deductions, this may no longer be necessary. To make the most out of your tax return, read on to learn when to itemize your deductions and when to stick with the standard deduction.
Between the 2018 and 2025 tax years, a change in tax law nearly doubling the standard deduction has made itemizing tax deductions less advantageous for many taxpayers.
Between the 2018 and 2025 tax years, when the TCJA is in effect, the number of taxpayers for whom itemizing will pay off is likely to drop significantly due to the much bigger standard deduction. (Two caveats: the personal exemption disappears, which may offset this effect for some. On the other hand, the child tax credit doubles and applies to more families, which will push some returns in the other direction.) The new law also eliminates a number of deductions taxpayers could take previously and changes some others. As we discuss the deductions we will note important shifts.
- Itemized deductions allow certain taxpayers to lower their annual income tax bill beyond what they would receive from the standard deduction.
- Itemized deductions include several categories - from medical expenses to mortgage interest to charitable donations.
- Itemizing most often makes sense for higher income earners who also have several items to deduct, such as being a homeowner or business owner.
The Purpose and Nature of Itemized Deductions
Itemized deductions fall into a different category than above-the-line deductions such as self-employment expenses and student loan interest; they are "below-the-line" deductions, or deductions from adjusted gross income. They are computed on the Internal Revenue Service's Schedule A and then the total is carried on to your 1040 form.
Once itemized deductions have been subtracted from your income, the remainder is your actual taxable income. Itemized deductions were created as a social-engineering tool by the government to provide economic incentives for taxpayers to do certain things, such as buy houses and make donations to charities.
So Which Deductions Can Be Itemized?
Schedule A is broken down into several different sections that deal with each type of itemized deduction. For a breakdown of your itemized deductions, see the IRS instructions for Schedule A.
The following is a brief overview of the scope and limits of each category of itemized deduction. To help with future planning, we've included key changes under the new tax law, which mostly applies from tax year 2018 on:
- Unreimbursed Medical and Dental Expenses – This deduction is perhaps the most difficult – and financially painful – to qualify for. Taxpayers who incur qualified out-of-pocket medical and/or dental expenses that are not covered by insurance can deduct expenses that exceed 7.5% of their adjusted gross incomes. This was originally scheduled to rise to 10% starting with the 2019 tax year (payable in April 2020). However, the 7.5% threshold will remain in place for the 2019 and 2020 tax years, thanks to an extension signed into law on December 20, 2019.
- Interest Expenses – Homeowners can deduct the interest that they pay on their mortgages and some home-equity debt.
- Home mortgage interest is deductible on the first $750,000 in loans. Each year, mortgage lenders mail Form 1098 to borrowers, which details the exact amount of deductible interest and points that they've paid over the past year. Taxpayers who bought or refinanced homes during the year can also deduct the points that they've paid, within certain guidelines. If the mortgage was originated before December 16, 2017, then a higher limitation of $1 million applies. The higher limit still applies if you refinance, as long as the loan amount stays the same. For tax years after 2025, the $1 million limitation reappears regardless of when the loan was taken out.
- Home-equity loan/line of credit interest is deductible, provided that the borrowed funds are used to buy, build or substantially improve the home that secures the loan.
- Taxes Paid – Taxpayers who itemize are able to deduct two types of taxes paid on their Schedule A. Personal property taxes, which include real estate taxes, are deductible along with state and local taxes that were assessed for the previous year. However, any refund received by the taxpayer from the state in the previous year must be counted as income if the taxpayer itemized deductions in the previous year. Starting in 2018 until the end of 2025, taxpayers can deduct only $10,000 of these combined taxes. In addition, foreign real estate taxes (not related to a trade or business) are not tax deductible. Also, if you prepaid your state or local income tax for next year, that amount is not deductible on your current year's taxes.
- Charitable Donations – Any donation made to a qualified charity is deductible within certain limitations. For cash contributions between 2018 and 2025, the amount that can be deducted is limited to no more than 60% of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income. Excess amounts must be carried over to the next year. Other contributions can be limited to 50%, 30% or 20% of AGI, depending on the type of property and organization receiving your donation.
- Casualty and Theft Losses – Any casualty or theft loss incurred as a result of a federally declared disaster can be reported on Schedule A. Unfortunately, only losses in excess of 10% of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income are deductible after subtracting $100 from the loss amount. If a taxpayer incurs a casualty loss in one year and deducts it on his or her taxes, then any reimbursement that is received in later years must be counted as income. Taxpayers must complete Form 4864 and report the loss on Schedule A.
- Unreimbursed Job-Related Expenses and Certain Miscellaneous Deductions – Prior to the passage of the TCJA, workers incurring job-related expenses were able to deduct those expenses that exceeded 2% of their adjusted gross income. Now you must fall into one of four categories to be able to claim job-related expenses. You must be either an Armed Forces reservist, a qualified performing artist, a state or local government official working on a fee-basis, or an employee with impairment-related work expenses. Workers who fall into these categories and claiming expenses must complete Form 2106. In addition, eligible educators may deduct up to $250 in unreimbursed expenses, and can do so by completing Schedule 1.
- Other Miscellaneous Deductions – This final category of itemized deductions includes items such as gambling losses to the extent of gambling winnings, losses from partnerships or subchapter S-corporations, estate taxes on income in respect of a decedent and certain other expenses. Some of these deductions are eliminated or changed for 2018-2025. For additional details, see IRS Publication 17 and the instructions for Schedule A. For tax years 2018 onward, check with your tax advisor.
Summary of 2019 Tax Law Changes
If you're filing as a single taxpayer for the 2019 tax year—or you're married and filing separately—you will likely be better off taking the standard deduction of $12,200 if your itemized deductions total less than that amount. The same applies to a married couple filing jointly who have no more than $24,400 in itemized deductions and heads of household whose deductions total no more than $18,350. These deductions almost doubled starting in 2018 after passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
Tax Deductions You Can Itemize
- Interest on mortgage of $750,000 or less
- Interest on mortgage of $1 million or less if incurred before Dec. 16, 2017
- Charitable contributions
- Medical and dental expenses (over 7.5% of AGI)
- State and local income, sales and personal property taxes up to $10,000
- Gambling losses
- Investment interest expenses
- $2,500 in student loan interest
- $250 (for educators buying classroom supplies)
Deductions You Lost
- Mortgage interest: loan amounts from $750,000+ to $1 million
- State and local income, sales and personal property taxes beyond $10,000
- Alimony payments for divorce agreements after Dec. 31, 2018
- Moving expenses (except active-duty military)
- Unreimbursed employee expenses
- Tax-preparation expenses
- Natural disaster losses (unless in an area designated by the president)
Income Limitations for Itemized Deductions
Previously, taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes above certain levels were subject to limits on how much they could claim in itemized deductions. These limits, known as the Pease limitations, are suspended for 2018-2025 by the TCJA.
Remember to Aggregate
There are times when the additional deduction realized from excess medical or job-related expenses will allow itemized deductions to exceed the standard deduction. Therefore, you should not simply assume that you cannot deduct miscellaneous expenses or that you cannot itemize deductions if your itemizable deductions are insufficient by themselves for you to qualify.
The Bottom Line
Many rules concerning itemized deductions are beyond the scope of this article. Working with an experienced and competent tax preparer can help to ensure those rules are applied to your tax return. Your tax preparer should also be able to allow you to determine whether you should itemize or take the standard deduction. Be sure to take some time to review what to expect from 2018 through 2025 based on the new tax legislation.