personal finance

The Covid Relief Bill Will Keep These Tax Breaks Around Even Longer

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  • Certain tax provisions are up for renewal each year. Congress needs to sign off on these so-called “tax extenders” to give filers an opportunity to claim them.
  • There were 33 provisions that were set to expire at the end of 2020, but a bundle of them were packed into the Covid relief legislation and given new life.
  • Key extenders for individual taxpayers include the lower threshold to claim medical expenses and a write-off for mortgage insurance premiums.

Taxpayers will have another shot at a package of tax breaks that would have otherwise expired at the end of 2020.

That's because when lawmakers hammered out the 5,593-page Covid relief act, they resurrected a basket of deductions and credits — known as tax extenders — that were about a week away from lapsing.

In all, 33 measures were set to expire at the end of 2020, ranging from a break on racehorses to a tax credit for two-wheeled electric vehicles.

Some of these deductions and credits have been made permanent, while others have been extended until the end of 2025 — the date when a slate of individual provisions from the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will sunset.

"We won't have to do that waffling back and forth with several of these extenders, and another 11 of them got a five-year extension," said Erica York, an economist with Tax Foundation's Center for Federal Tax Policy.

"I think taxpayers are going to have a lot more certainty," she said.

Here are the extenders that are back.

Medical expenses

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Back when the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act took effect in 2018, individuals who itemized deductions on their federal income tax return were able to deduct qualifying medical expenses that exceeded 7.5% of their adjusted gross income.

Initially, this provision was set to expire at the end of 2018 and the threshold would have gone up to 10% of adjusted gross income.

Lawmakers sought to keep the expense threshold at 7.5% through the end of 2020.

With the passage of the Covid relief act, the lower threshold is now permanent.

However, you can only take this deduction if you itemize on your return. The standard deduction for 2020 is $12,400 for singles and $24,800 for married-filing-jointly.

Lifetime learning credit vs. tuition deduction

The qualified tuition deduction granted an above-the-line write-off for parents of college kids. They could deduct up to $4,000 a year in higher-education tuition costs and other expenses.

Though this tax break was up for renewal at the end of 2020, Congress repealed it in the Covid relief act.

Instead, lawmakers expanded the lifetime learning credit, a tax break that's worth up to $2,000 per return and can be used to offset the cost of undergraduate, graduate and professional degree courses. 

In the Covid relief bill, Congress also made the credit available to higher income taxpayers. The lifetime learning credit begins to decline once single taxpayers' modified adjusted gross income hits $80,000 or $160,000 for joint filers.

These changes are in effect starting in 2021.

The adjustment eliminates confusion for taxpayers waffling between education credits or the deduction, said York of the Tax Foundation.

Deductions reduce your taxable income based on your federal income tax bracket. That means the higher your bracket, the greater the savings.

Meanwhile, credits lower your tax liability on a dollar-for-dollar basis. This makes them valuable even if you're in a lower tax bracket.

"A $4,000 deduction sounds better than a $2,000 credit, but some people would choose the deduction even if it wasn't the best choice for them," York said. "They'd leave money on the table."

Debt forgiveness amid foreclosure

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Normally, debt cancellation or forgiveness results in a tax on the borrower. The amount the lender wipes from the balance is deemed income.

A special tax extender softens the blow for homeowners who've had a mortgage balance forgiven due to a short sale or a foreclosure on the dwelling. It was only to apply to debt discharged before Jan. 1, 2021.

Lawmakers decided to keep this tax break, but they reduced the amount of forgiven debt that can be excluded from your gross income. Joint taxpayers can now exclude up to $750,000 in discharged debt ($350,000 for singles).

That's down from an exclusion of up to $2 million for joint taxpayers ($1 million for singles).

This modified write-off is in effect until the end of 2025.

Mortgage insurance premiums

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Private mortgage insurance premiums are the additional expense you pay each month if your original down payment on your home was less than 20% of the sales price.

The private mortgage insurance tax extender allows you to deduct these premiums — if you itemize deductions.

This provision is available through 2021.

Those who qualify may be able to deduct the interest on their mortgage and home equity loan or line of credit, up to $750,000 in total qualified residence loans.

The loans must go toward buying, building or substantially improving your home to qualify for the write-off.

Employer payments toward student debt

Due to the CARES Act, employers can make payments toward employees' student loans and have that amount — up to $5,250 annually — excluded from workers' taxable income.

This provision was set to expire at the end of last year. The new Covid bill grants further relief, allowing the exclusion to apply to payments made through the end of 2025.

Green tax breaks

Finally, a slate of environmentally conscious tax credits have been renewed through 2021.

Here are a few that are most pertinent to individual taxpayers.

Nonbusiness energy property credit: This is a credit of up to 10% of the cost of equipment, as much as $500, for energy-efficient home improvements, including heating and air conditioning systems. EnergyStar keeps a list of eligible equipment here.

Qualified fuel cell motor vehicles: This is a $4,000 tax credit for people who purchased cars that run on hydrogen.

Two-wheeled plug-in electric vehicles: This credit is equal to 10% of the cost of your battery-powered scooter, up to $2,500.

Alternative fuel vehicle refueling property: If you install a fueling station at your main house to recharge your green vehicle, you may be eligible for a credit of 30% of the installation cost or up to $1,000.

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