5 old tax laws with new amounts

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Some new tax laws make it into the Internal Revenue Code every year. But there also are some perennial tax provisions that remain the same and are adjusted annually to reflect inflation.

Inflation adjustments
These five tax code standards change every year, based on the inflation rate. While the adjustments may seem small, every dollar counts when it comes to taxes.
Old laws, new amounts
  1. Standard deduction amounts
  2. Personal exemptions
  3. Social Security wage base
  4. Earned income tax credit, or EITC
  5. Car costs

1. Standard deduction amounts

Most taxpayers claim the standard deduction instead of itemizing. On 2008 returns, the standard amount for single filers is $5,450. That amount, which is $100 more than the 2007 tax year, is also what a married taxpayer who opts to file separately from a spouse can claim. Head of household taxpayers get an $8,000 standard deduction this year, up $150 from 2007’s amount.

Married couples who file a joint return get a $200 bump, giving them a $10,900 standard deduction. This is double the single-filer amount, thanks to legislation from several years ago that lessen the marriage tax penalty. The change was made to appease husbands and wives who had argued that filing one joint return cheated them of tax breaks they would have received if they had submitted two separate 1040s. Qualifying widows and widowers also can use this amount.

2. Personal exemptions

You, your spouse and each person you can claim as a dependent are valuable exemptions that can cut your tax bill. You’re all worth $3,500 apiece this filing season. That’s $100 more than the previous tax year.

However, if you make a lot of money, your exemption amount could be reduced or even eliminated. For 2008 returns, this income trigger starts at $119,575 for married taxpayers who file separately. Regardless of your filing status, if you hit that mark, you will have to complete a work sheet to determine your exemption amount.

3. Social Security wage base

Every worker knows that a portion of each paycheck goes to pay for Social Security benefits. But if you earn a lot, some of your wages escape this payroll withholding. The first $102,000 you earned last year was subject to this 6.2 percent levy. Your employer matched that amount.

If you earned more, the Social Security tax wasn’t collected on the overage amount. You did, however, continue to pay the 1.45 percent Medicare portion, again matched by your company on every dollar you made last year.

The 2008 Social Security wage base was $4,500 more, or an increase of 4.6 percent over the $97,500 wage base of the year before. For 2009 planning purposes, it goes up to $106,800.

4. Earned income tax credit, or EITC

Workers on the other end of the income scale also get an added inflationary break. The earned income tax credit helps cut the tax bill of filers who make below a certain wage limit.

The potential credit on 2008 returns ranges from $438 to $4,824.

A childless person who earned less than $12,880 in 2008 can apply for the credit. A worker who, supporting one child, made less than $33,995 is eligible, as is a worker earning less than $38,646 and taking care of two or more youngsters.

The EITC earning limits are $3,000 higher in each category for married taxpayers filing jointly.

Because the EITC is a credit, you subtract the amount directly from any tax you owe. Even better, unlike most tax credits the EITC is refundable. That means if you qualify, you can get the money even if you owe no tax.

5. Car costs

The only good thing about high gasoline prices is that they lead to larger tax deductions for individuals who use their vehicles for work, when moving or in connection with medical or charity-related trips.

Each fall, the IRS determines how much drivers can write off for these various travels in the coming 12 months. However, skyrocketing pump prices in 2008 prompted the IRS to make an additional midyear adjustment. That means you’ll be making dual calculations for any allowable mileage deductions.

If you used your car for business in 2008, the standard mileage rate for business use of a car, van, pickup or panel truck is 50.5 cents per mile driven from Jan. 1, 2008, through June 30, 2008. The rate for business driving from July 1, 2008, through Dec. 31, 2008, is 58.5 cents per mile.

Travel for medical purposes last year is deductible on your 2008 return at 19 cents per mile for the first six months of the year. The rate jumps to 27 cents for such miles driven the last half of the year. Those same rates apply to allowable move-related mileage.

The mileage deduction for travel in connection with charitable services is not adjusted for inflation. It is set by law at 14 cents a mile. Lawmakers do make exceptions for special situations. That’s the case for miles driven in connection with charities providing services to certain areas of the Midwest that were struck last year by natural disasters. If you assisted in relief efforts, or do so in 2009, your mileage reimbursement is 70 percent of the business rates.

In addition to these inflation adjustments to existing tax laws, there are some new ones on the books that could affect your 2008 return. See “10 tax laws that could affect your 2008 return.”