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Tax news you can use


Tax laws keep changing, but don't be the last to know about them. Here's the latest filing scoop.

10 new tax laws you need to know
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1. Easier access to retirement money
People who need to tap their retirement accounts to cover post-hurricane expenses can take out the money without paying the normal early distribution penalty. This option is available to victims of hurricanes Rita, Wilma and Katrina, says Mark Luscombe, a principal analyst with the tax-research, publishing and software firm CCH Inc., of Riverwoods, Ill.

Eligible taxpayers can withdraw up to $100,000 total from all of their retirement plans, annuities or IRAs. Accountholders still will have to pay taxes due on any distributions of tax-deferred money and earnings, but the 10-percent charge usually assessed when someone younger than 59½ takes out retirement money is waived.

As for those taxes, Luscombe says the law offers taxpayers the option to recover them by repaying the early distributions into a qualified plan within three years. In this case, you would file an amended return when you repay the retirement money and get back the taxes you paid.

If you can't repay the money, you can spread any tax due over a three-year period instead of having to come up with all of it this year.

The effective date for such penalty-free distributions differs, depending on which hurricane necessitated the withdrawal of the funds, so check with the IRS or your personal tax adviser to make sure you qualify. But in all cases, hurricane victims have until the end of 2006 to take advantage of this distribution provision.

2. Larger casualty loss deduction
Many hurricane victims will rely on existing tax provisions that will allow them to deduct their losses. This tax break helps, but it also generally limits the deduction to the loss amount that is more than 10 percent of the taxpayer's adjusted gross income plus $100. Tax-law changes now eliminate those limits for taxpayers whose losses are attributable to hurricanes Katrina, Rita or Wilma. For them, the entire amount of unreimbursed personal property losses is fully deductible.

3. Education breaks for storm-affected students
Persons who attend college in the federally designated Gulf Opportunity Zone, which encompasses parts of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, can now get double the standard Hope or Lifetime Learning credit amounts. This could provide up to $3,000 for the Hope Credit. The Lifetime benefit is expanded from 20 percent to 40 percent of eligible costs up to $10,000, meaning this credit could reach a maximum $4,000.

Even better, says Luscombe, this added credit amount is not restricted to specific storm dates. The increase applies to all qualified costs in 2005 and 2006.

"So someone at Tulane who hasn't been able to go back to school can use the larger credit to pay the tuition applied to the first part of the [2005 school] year," says Luscombe. "This is aimed at encouraging persons to go back to those [storm-affected] schools, so it applies through 2006 to give them incentive to go back."

In addition to providing tax considerations for individuals directly affected by the storms, several new laws also offer tax breaks for persons who came to the aid of hurricane victims.

-- Posted: Jan. 23, 2006
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