The coronavirus pandemic led to some temporary changes in tax laws. Most changes apply to the general public, but some have special implications for the military community.
Even within the military, the changes will not have the same impact on everyone. So, it is important to know your circumstances and adapt to the reforms and changes in a way that reflects your finances and lifestyle.
Provisions in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act may affect your 2020 federal income tax return in the following ways:
• Expanded advance child tax credit: As part of the American Rescue Plan to help Americans recover financially from the pandemic, the child tax credit for 2021 was expanded to $3,600 for children under the age of 6 and $3,000 for children 6-17 years old. Eligible families will automatically receive monthly payments from July 15 through December 2021, totaling half of the credit. Families may claim the other half of the credit when filing their 2021 tax return.
• Retirement account withdrawals: The 10 percent tax penalty for an early withdrawal from a retirement account has been suspended in 2020 for those who suffered financial hardship due to COVID-19.
• Economic Impact Payments: You should have received a $1,200 Economic Impact Payment in 2020 ($2,400 if you are married), plus $500 for each qualifying child. If you did not, or if you received less than the amount for which you were eligible, you may claim the Recovery Rebate Credit on your federal income tax return.
• Charitable contributions: To encourage giving in 2020, the CARES Act allows taxpayers to deduct up to $300 in cash donations to eligible charities without itemizing the contributions.
• Unemployment benefits: If you are a military spouse who received unemployment benefits in 2020, you will receive a form 1099-G, Certain Government Payments, that states your unemployment income and any income tax withheld. Be sure to report this information on your tax return.
• Social Security payroll tax deferral: Social Security taxes were deferred for service members from mid-September through the end of December 2020. The deferred Social Security taxes will automatically be taken from your wages from Jan. 1-Dec. 31, 2021, so will not affect your 2020 income tax filing.
Key tax reforms
Picture your financial and personal events over the last year. Perhaps you are looking forward to having your first child. Maybe the ink just dried on the paperwork for your new home. Take a look at these key reforms and see if they will affect your spending and family circumstances:
Standard deduction: For tax year 2020, the standard deduction is $12,400 for singles or those who are married but filing separately, $24,800 for those who are married and filing jointly and $18,650 for those who file as the head of household.
Personal exemption deduction: Beginning in 2018, you can’t claim a personal exemption deduction for yourself, your spouse or your dependents. This may impact decisions on the itemized deductions and dependents you claim on your tax return.
Itemized deductions: Beginning in 2018, the following changes were made to itemized deductions that taxpayers can claim on Schedule A:
• Your itemized deductions are no longer limited if your adjusted gross income is over a certain amount.
• You can deduct the part of your medical and dental expenses that is more than 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income.
• Your deduction of state and local income, sales and property taxes is limited to a combined, total deduction of $10,000 ($5,000 if married and filing separately). As a military member, your state of legal residence and the state in which you own a home will determine how much this change impacts you.
• Under the new rules, unreimbursed business expenses, including auto, travel, meals, entertainment and home office expenses, are no longer deductions.
• For debt incurred after Dec. 15, 2017, the deduction for home mortgage interest is limited to interest on up to $750,000 ($375,000 if you are a married taxpayer filing a separate return) of home-acquisition debt. This new limit doesn’t apply if you had a binding contract to close on a home after Dec. 15, 2017, and closed on or before April 1, 2018. The prior limit would apply in that case.
• Beginning in 2018, you cannot deduct interest on a home equity loan or line of credit unless it’s for buying, building or making substantial improvements to your home.
• The limit on charitable contributions of cash increased from 50 percent to 60 percent of your adjusted gross income. However, for tax year 2020 only, the limit is 100 percent of your adjusted gross income.
Child tax credit: With the exception of the temporary expansion of the child tax credit for tax year 2021, as of 2019, the maximum credit is $2,000 per qualifying child. The maximum additional child tax credit is $1,400. Also, the income threshold at which the credit begins to phase out is now $200,000 ($400,000 if married and filing jointly).
Credit for other dependents: A credit of up to $500 is available for each of your dependents, such as an adult child with a disability or an elderly parent who does not qualify for the child tax credit. In addition, the maximum income threshold at which the credit begins to phase out has increased to $200,000 ($400,000 if married and filing jointly).
Education: As a result of the new tax codes, you can use funds from your 529 education savings plan to pay for private K-12 educational expenses at secondary public, private or religious schools with a limit of $10,000 per student per year.
Reserve service members: Reserve service members are able to deduct unreimbursed travel expenses to attend drill duty only if it takes place more than 100 miles away from home.
Moving expenses: Members of the armed forces can still deduct moving expenses as long as the move is part of an authorized permanent change of station or PCS. If you’re voluntarily moving, you will join most other taxpayers in no longer being able to deduct moving expenses from your taxes.
Deployments to the Sinai Peninsula: If you previously served in the newly designated combat zone, you may qualify for retroactive tax benefits. If so, you’ll need to submit an amended tax return, or Form 1040X, for the year in which you were there, dating to 2015. You generally have three years from the date you filed your previous tax return to claim the refund.
Alimony or maintenance payments: If you make alimony or maintenance payments, you will no longer be able to deduct them from your taxable income, and the recipient will no longer have to claim the payments as income. This went into effect for any divorce or separation agreement signed or modified after Dec. 31, 2018.
Estate tax exemption: The estate tax exemption for 2020 is $11.58 million, so an estate valued at less than the new threshold will not be taxed when the owner dies.
Investment fees: You can no longer deduct investment fees from taxes. If a major part of your financial strategy includes investments, and you have substantial investor fees, you will be paying more in taxes.
Penalty for not maintaining minimum essential health coverage: Beginning in 2019, the penalty amount was reduced to zero.