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All Contents © 2019The Kiplinger Washington Editors
By Kevin McCormally, Chief Content Officer
| December 8, 2016
Because federal tax law reaches deep into all aspects of our lives, it’s no surprise that the rules that affect us change as our lives change. This can present opportunities to save or create costly pitfalls to avoid. Being alert to the rolling changes that come at various life stages is the key to holding down your tax bill to the legal minimum.
Got a new bundle of joy in your household? The key to tax breaks for your child is a Social Security number. You'll need one to claim him or her as a dependent on your tax return. Failing to report the number can trigger a $50 fine and tie up your refund until things are straightened out. You can request a Social Security number for your newborn at the hospital at the same time you apply for a birth certificate. If you don't, you'll need to file a Form SS-5 with the Social Security Administration and provide proof of the child's age, identity and U.S. citizenship.
Read on for 10 opportunities to cut your tax bill as you grow your family.
Claiming your son or daughter as a dependent will shelter $4,050 of your income from tax in 2016, saving you just over $1,000 if you're in the 25% bracket. (The value of the exemption is reduced if your adjusted gross income exceeds $259,400 if you’re single or $311,300 if you file a joint return.) You get the full year's exemption no matter when during the year the child was born or adopted. There's a big catch here, however: If you're subject to the alternative minimum tax, exemptions don't count ... at all.
For 2017 tax returns filed in 2018, the exemption amount will remain $4,050.
A new baby also delivers a $1,000 child tax credit, and this is a gift that keeps on giving every year until your dependent son or daughter turns 17. You get the full $1,000 credit no matter when during the year the child was born.
Unlike the exemption that reduces the amount of income the government gets to tax, a credit reduces your tax bill dollar for dollar. So, the $1,000 child credit will reduce your tax bill by $1,000. The credit is phased out at higher income levels, beginning to disappear as income rises above $110,000 on joint returns and above $75,000 on single and head of household returns. For some lower-income taxpayers, the credit is "refundable," meaning that if it exceeds income tax liability for the year, the IRS will issue a refund check for the difference.
Because claiming an extra dependent will cut your tax bill, it also means you can cut back on tax withholding from your paychecks.
File a new W-4 form with your employer to claim an additional withholding allowance. For a new parent in the 25% bracket, that will cut 2017 withholding—and boost take-home pay—by about $85 a month. You can also take the child credit cited previously into account on your W-4, pushing withholding down even more.
If you are married, having a child will not affect your filing status. But if you're single, having a child may allow you to file as a head of household rather than using the single filing status. That would give you a bigger standard deduction and more advantageous tax brackets. To qualify as a head of household, you must pay more than half the cost of providing a home for a qualifying person—and your new son or daughter qualifies.
For a couple without children, the chance to claim this credit—which offsets federal payroll and income taxes for low- and moderate-income workers and tops out at $506 to $6,269, depending on your income and how many children you have—disappears when income on a joint return exceeds $20,400 in 2016. Having a child, though, pushes the cutoff to $44,800 for 2016 returns. The income cutoff is even higher if you have two or more children.
If you pay for child care to allow you to work—and you're earning income for the IRS to tax—you can earn a credit worth between $600 and $1,050 if you're paying for the care of one child younger than 13, or between $1,200 and $2,100 if you're paying for the care of two or more children under 13. The size of your credit depends on how much you pay for care (you can count up to $3,000 for the care of one child and up to $6,000 for the care of two or more) and your income. Lower-income workers (with adjusted gross income of $15,000 or less) can claim a credit worth up to 35% of qualifying costs, and the percentage gradually drops to a floor of 20% for taxpayers reporting AGI of more than $43,000. The next slide explains how you might combine this tax break with a child-care flex plan.
You may have an even more tax-friendly way to pay your child-care bills than the child-care credit: a child-care reimbursement account at work.
These accounts, often called flex plans, allow you to divert up to $5,000 a year of your salary into a special account that you can then tap to pay child-care bills. Money you run through the account avoids both federal income and Social Security taxes, so it could easily save you more than the child-care credit. Some workers steer clear of reimbursement accounts because of the use-it-or-lose-it rule that requires you to agree to set aside a certain amount of money for the account at the beginning of the year and, if you fail to spend every dime on qualifying costs, you forfeit any balance at year-end. However, it should be fairly easy to pinpoint your expected child-care costs. Plus, the tax benefits are so powerful that you can come out well ahead even if you wind up forfeiting some of your set-aside.
You can't double dip, by claiming a child-care credit against funds paid for with flex-plan money. But note that while the limit for flex accounts is $5,000, the credit can be claimed against up to $6,000 of eligible expenses if you have two or more children. So, even if you run $5,000 through a flex account, you could qualify to claim the 20% to 35% credit on up to $1,000 more. Although you generally can only sign up for a flex account during "open season," most companies allow you to make midyear changes in response to certain "life events," and one such event is the birth of a child.
There's also a tax credit to help offset the cost of adopting a child. The credit will reimburse you for up to $13,460 in expenses for a 2016 adoption. This credit phases out as adjusted gross income in 2016 rises from $201,920 and is completely phased out for taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income of $241,920 or more.
It's never too early to start saving for those college bills. And it's no surprise that Congress has included some tax goodies to help parents save.
One option is a Section 529 state education savings plan. Contributions to these plans are not deductible on the federal tax return, but earnings grow tax-free and payouts are tax-free, too, if the money is used to pay qualifying college bills. (Many states give residents a state tax deduction if they invest in the state's 529 plan.) Qualifying costs include tuition and other fees required by the university, as well as room and board for students enrolled at least half time. Books, calculators and software count, too, as do the cost of computers and internet service used by the student.
Coverdell education savings accounts (ESA) offer another way to generate tax-free earnings to pay for educational expenses. Regardless of how many people contribute, there is a $2,000 limit on how much can go into any beneficiary's account in one year. There is no deduction for deposits, but earnings are tax-free if used to pay for education expenses. You can use the money tax-free for elementary and high-school expenses, as well as college costs. Although there is no tax deduction for contributors, the law prohibits contributions by people with adjusted gross income in excess of $110,000 on a single return or $220,000 on a joint return.
You may have heard about kid IRA—and the fact that relatively small investments when a child is young can grow to eye-popping balances over many decades. While that's true, there's a catch. You can't just open an IRA for your newborn and start shoveling in cash. A person must have earned income from a job or self-employment to have an IRA. Gifts and investment income don't count. So, you probably can't open an IRA for your newborn (unless, perhaps, he or she gets paid as an infant model).
As soon as your youngster starts earning some money—by babysitting or delivering papers, for example, or helping out in the family business—he or she can open an IRA. The phenomenal power of long-term compounding makes it a great idea. Although a child must have earned income to have an IRA, the child's own money doesn't have to go into the account. It's fine for a generous parent or grandparent to give the child money for the account. Contributions are limited to $5,500 a year, or 100% of the child's earnings, whichever is less.