Many older Americans are missing out on valuable tax breaks offered by the IRS, leaving behind savings that could make a difference for their financial well-being.

“The reason this is happening is because the tax code is complicated, and rules on tax exemptions are constantly changing,” says Tom O’Saben, director of tax content and government relations at the National Association of Tax Professionals in Washington, D.C. “This makes it hard for the average taxpayer to know about the array of tax breaks available to them.”

Since 2017, O’Saben says, there have been five big tax-law changes, including the Trump-era Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the pandemic-era Cares Act, and President Biden’s climate and healthcare package known as the Inflation Reduction Act. Together, these changes have brought new tax breaks, diminished the use of others, and otherwise muddled the tax-filing process.

The Internal Revenue Service offers Tax Counseling for the Elderly, a community-based program that includes free tax-return preparation for seniors who are age 60 and over who are usually in low-to-moderate income brackets.

Here’s a look at four often-overlooked tax deductions for seniors that can offer potentially lucrative savings.

Extra standard deduction

Each filing season millions of Americans take the standard deduction—a flat dollar amount determined by the IRS that reduces taxable income—instead of itemizing deductions such as mortgage interest and charitable donations on their 1040 tax form. According to the IRS’s most recent tally, 87.3% of tax filers claimed the standard deduction during fiscal year 2020.

“Taking a standard deduction makes sense if the amount is higher than the total itemized deductions that can lower your tax bill,” says Lisa Greene-Lewis, a certified public accountant and tax expert at TurboTax who says the IRS has increased this tax break by 7% for the 2023 tax year.

This tax year the total standard deduction is $13,850 for single filers, and $27,700 for married couples filing jointly.

In the 2023 tax year, seniors who are age 65 or over or blind and meet certain qualifications are now eligible for an extra standard deduction on top of the regular deduction. This is one of the annual inflation adjustments under tax law that can help older Americans with low annual gross income.

The extra standard deduction for seniors for 2023 is $1,850 for single filers or who file as head of household, and $3,000 for married couples—if each spouse is 65 or over—filing jointly. Those increases boost the total standard deduction for single filers and married couples filing jointly—to $15,700 and $30,700, respectively.

To qualify, a senior can’t be claimed as a dependent by another taxpayer. There are also other IRS rules for eligibility. Among them: A married individual filing separately can’t take the extra standard deduction if his or her spouse itemizes deductions, and an estate or trust, common trust fund or partnership can’t claim it.

If you are 65 and older and blind, the extra standard deduction is $3,700 if you are single or filing as head of household, and if married $3,000 for each spouse, filing jointly or separately. This deduction is available to those who are legally blind and it requires a doctor’s confirmation in cases where the taxpayer has less than total blindness.

According to Eric Smith, a spokesman at the IRS, “about 25.3 million seniors and blind tax filers claimed the additional tax deduction in tax year 2020.”

IRA contributions by a spouse

Many people don’t know that they can contribute earned income to a nonworking, or low-earning, spouse’s individual retirement account if they file a joint tax return as a married couple. These so-called spousal IRAs are just like traditional IRAs, reducing pretax income. They aren’t joint accounts; each IRA is set up in the name of the individual spouse. And Roth IRAs aren’t eligible for this strategy.

“This spousal IRA strategy can double retirement savings for the year while reducing a couple’s tax bite,” says Nathan Anderson, a certified public accountant and certified financial planner at Prairiewood Wealth Management in West Fargo, N.D.

For the 2023 tax year, married couples who file jointly can contribute $6,500 to a spousal IRA per individual for a total of $13,000. If they are both 50 and older, each individual is allowed an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution for a total of $15,000.

Keep in mind the IRS has specific guidelines on spousal IRAs. A working spouse must earn at least as much money as he or she contributed to both of the couple’s IRAs. Married couples must file a joint tax return to be eligible, and there is no age limit on spousal IRA contributions as long as at least one person has earned income.

“Remember this is not for every retiree,” says Sean Mullaney, president of Mullaney Financial & Tax in Los Angeles. “If you have no earned income and you just have Social Security, you cannot do this.”

Qualified charitable distributions

Seniors who give money to charity to lower their taxable income often make a mistake. They withdraw a large sum from their bank account or a traditional IRA and then write a check to the nonprofit or organization of their choice. As a result, they are missing a valuable tax deduction.

Instead, tax pros say they should use a qualified charitable distribution, or QCD, which allows individuals over 70½ to transfer up to $100,000 a year from their traditional IRA directly to a charity tax-free, even if they aren’t itemizing deductions. Married couples filing jointly can donate $200,000 annually and neither can contribute more than $100,000.

These contributions must be made to a qualified 501 (c)(3) charity defined and approved by the IRS such as private foundations, churches and religious organizations and schools. They can’t be to donor-advised funds. You can check what types of institutions are qualified on IRS.gov.

“This is one of the biggest tax breaks for seniors and a great opportunity to lower taxable income,” says Brett Koeppel, president of Eudaimonia Wealth, a financial-planning firm in Buffalo, N.Y.

In years when you need to take the annual withdrawal known as a required minimum distribution, or RMD—currently, this typically applies to people 73 or older—you can direct your administrator to direct your distribution as a QCD to an eligible charity. That would exclude the RMD from your taxable income, he notes. Keep in mind the IRS has specific age formulas on RMDs so you’ll need to check those rules.

The good news is that these payouts don’t add to adjusted gross income, which is used by Medicare to determine the cost of your monthly premiums. (The higher your adjusted gross income, the higher your Income-Related Monthly Adjustment Amounts, or Irmaa, can be, although these amounts are usually based on a recipient’s income from two years before, so 2023 premiums are based on an individual’s 2021 income.)

But tax professionals caution that this QCD issue can be tricky. That is because custodians of qualified retirement accounts such as IRAs aren’t required to break down what distributions from an account went to charity. They just provide the number of distribution transactions and the gross dollar amount withdrawn during the year on the 1099-R tax form.

“It’s up to the taxpayer to sort this out and make sure it is reported correctly with his or her tax preparer,” Koeppel says. You need to keep track of what charities are getting distributions and have documents that state they received your funds, he explains.

“This can often be missed on tax returns, so be vigilant,” Mullaney adds.

Medicare premium deduction

“If you are a retiree who is self-employed, you can deduct your Medicare premiums even if you don’t itemize,” Koeppel says. This includes Medicare Part B and D, plus the cost of supplemental Medigap policies or the cost of a Medicare Advantage plan.

The IRS considers you self-employed for this deduction if you own a business as either a sole proprietor (Schedule C), partner (Schedule E), limited liability company member, or S corporation shareholder with at least 2% of the company stock. Other special rules apply. See the instructions on the 1040 form for details.

This tax benefit isn’t subject to the 7.5% of adjusted gross income test that applies to itemized medical expenses. (Under that rule, you can claim medical deductions for amounts paid for everything—from dental bills and doctor fees to nursing-home care—that exceed 7.5% of your gross income.)

There are caveats to be aware of. You must have business income to qualify since you can deduct your premiums by only as much as you earn from your business, say tax experts. You also can’t claim this deduction when your health insurance is covered by a retiree medical plan hosted by a former employer, or by your spouse’s employer’s medical plan.

Lori Ioannou is a writer in New York. She can be reached at [email protected].

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