Top Seven Tax Deductions for Seniors and Retirees

Here's a list of the top tax deductions for those over 50.

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If you are a senior or retired, be sure to understand and take advantage of the deductions available to reduce your income taxes each year. Here's some of the most important tax deductions.

1. Medical and dental expenses. Medical and dental expenses are often one of the largest expenses for retired people. Fortunately, some of these expenses are deductible. These include health insurance premiums (including Medicare premiums), long-term care insurance premiums, prescription drugs, nursing home care, and most other out-of-pocket heath care expenses.

If you itemize your deductions, medical and dental expenses are deductible from your income taxes on Schedule A of your tax return. However, they are subject to a limit. For many years, the limit was 7.5% of a taxpayer's adjusted gross income (AGI), meaning that only those expenses in excess of 7.5% of a taxpayer's AGI were deductible. For example, if someone's AGI was $100,000, only those medical and dental expenses above $7,500 (7.5% x $100,000 = $7,500) would be deductible.

Starting in 2013, the rules for deducting medical and dental expenses changed. For taxpayers under 65 years old, the 7.5% threshold was increased to 10% so only medical and dental expenses in excess of 10% of a taxpayer's AGI are deductible. This means people can not deduct as much of their medical costs as they have been able to in prior years. 

In creating the new rules for deducting medical expenses, Congress exempted people age 65 and older from the 10% threshold increase until 2017. Thus, anyone age 65 or older can use the 7.5% threshold for deducting medical and dental expenses for any tax year ending before January 1, 2017, as long as the taxpayer or his or her spouse was age 65 during or before the tax year. 

To learn more, see Nolo's article Deducting Medical Expenses and IRS Publication 554, Tax Guide for Seniors (available on the IRS website).

2. Selling your house. Retired people often sell their homes to move into smaller places or retirement communities. If you've lived in your home for a long time, you probably have substantial equity and will earn a large profit on the sale. Fortunately, you may not have to pay any tax on your profit. As long as you live in your home for at least two out of the five years before you sell your house, the profit you make on the sale -- up to $250,000 for single taxpayers and $500,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly -- is not taxable.

(For more on this, see Avoiding Capital Gains Tax When Selling Your Home: Read the Fine Print.)

3. Retirement plan contributions. Just because you are retired or semi-retired doesn't mean that you can't make tax-deductible contributions to retirement plans such as IRAs. Those over 50 have higher contribution limits for traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and 401(k)s. 

Or, you may prefer to contribute to a Roth IRA. You'll pay taxes on the income you contribute now, but the withdrawals upon retirement are tax-free. This means no tax need be paid on all the interest or other income earned by your Roth IRA investments.

Retirees with their own businesses may also establish SEP-IRAs, Simple IRAs, Keogh plans, and solo 401(k) plans that have higher contribution limits for those over 55.

4. Investment expenses. The best way to earn money when you retire is in the form of interest, dividends, and capital gains from investments. Dividends and capital gains are taxed at lower rates than ordinary income, ranging from 0% to 20% depending on your overall income tax bracket. Unlike income from a job or business, these types of income are not subject to Social Security or Medicare taxes.

In addition, fees you incur for investment advice or accounting services are deductible to the extent they, along with your other itemized personal deductions, exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income. Examples include:

  • attorney and accounting fees
  • safe deposit box fees
  • subscriptions to investment newsletters
  • fees for online services
  • home computers used for investment purposes
  • fees to financial planners, and
  • fees you pay to a broker, bank, trustee, or similar agent to collect investment income, such as your taxable bond or mortgage interest, or your dividends on shares of stock.

However, you cannot deduct fees you pay to a broker to acquire investment property, such as stocks or bonds. You must add the fee to the cost of the property and recoup your expenses when you sell.

5. Business expenses. Many retirees continue to run their own businesses or start new ones. For example, some retired employees work part-time as a consultant for their former employers and other clients. Having a business (whether full- or part-time) is a great way to get tax deductions. You may deduct all the necessary expenses you incur to do business, so long as they are reasonable in amount. This includes business travel, the cost of business equipment such as computers, and outside or home offices. Find out more in Nolo's section on Business Tax & Deductions.

6. Charitable contributions. Retirement is a time many people think about giving back to their community by making charitable contributions. Such contributions are deductible as itemized deductions; however, they are subject to special limitations. Cash contributions of up to 50% of your adjusted gross income are deductible each year as an itemized deduction.

If you donate property other than cash to a qualified organization, you may generally deduct the fair market value of the property. If the property has appreciated in value, however, you may have to make some adjustments. However, if you donate a car, boat, or airplane, your deduction generally is limited to the gross proceeds from its sale by the charitable organization. This rule applies if the claimed value of the donated vehicle is more than $500.

7. Standard deduction. This applies if you don't itemize your deductions (many older folks don't if they are no longer paying mortgage interest).  Anyone who is 65 and older by December 31 of the tax year is entitled to a higher standard deduction. Technically, you are considered 65 on the day before your 65 th birthday so you can take the higher standard deduction if you turn 65 by January 1st. 

People age 65 and older (or blind) get an additional standard deduction of $1,200 for married taxpayers and $1,550 for single filers (2014). You can claim the higher deduction if only your spouse is older than 65 and you file a joint return.

To learn more about tax deductions for seniors, see Nolo's Essential Retirement Tax Guide, by John Suttle, CPA and Twila Slesnick, PhD.

by: , J.D.

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