2020 Tax Help for Seniors

Federal income taxes, tax credits, and tax deductions for seniors differ from other age groups

U.S. tax laws are complicated no matter what age you are, but they can get even more confusing as you get older. Filing taxes can have a significant impact on retirement planning for seniors, so staying informed will help you make sense of the current laws, take advantage of tax credits and deductions for seniors, and avoid costly surprises.
 
To help you get started, here’s some guidance on how senior taxes differ from other age groups. Since some of these topics affect taxpayers differently, you should consider hiring a certified financial advisor for seniors to prepare your taxes.

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Senior filing threshold

Before you start filing your taxes, you may be wondering, “Do I need to file a tax return?” For taxpayers who were 65 or older by the end of 2020, the filing threshold — whether you need to file — is higher, according to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). If you’re a single filer over 65 and have a gross income of $14,050 or higher, then you need to file a tax return. If you’re a married couple both 65 or older filing jointly with a combined income of $27,400 or higher, or if you’re a married couple with a spouse under the age of 65 filing jointly with a combined income of $26,100, you also must file. However, if you live on Social Security benefits, you don't include this in gross income, according to TurboTax. If this is the only income you receive, then your gross income equals zero, and you don't have to file a federal income tax return.

One difference in 2020 is the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. In order to receive the $1,200 stimulus payment, even those who don’t need to submit a federal tax return will need to complete one this year.

Standard tax deduction for seniors

If you don’t itemize your deductions, you can get a higher standard deduction amount if you and/or your spouse are 65 years old or older. For single filers, the 2020 standard deduction is $14,050. (It’s only $12,400 for single filers under 65 years old.)

Taxable Social Security benefits

Many seniors are surprised to learn that Social Security benefits above specific amounts are subject to federal income taxes, says Harry Daniels, certified public accountant and certified financial planner at Duggan, Joiner & Company Certified Public Accountants. Social Security benefits could put you in a higher tax bracket and increase the amount of taxes you owe by thousands of dollars. The IRS provides a Social Security benefits worksheet. And IRS Form 1040 and Form 1040A can help you calculate how much of your Social Security benefits are taxable.

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Tax credit and deductions for seniors

At age 50, and especially after age 65, you may qualify for additional tax breaks, such as:

Credit for the Elderly or Disabled

If you’re age 65 or older, you may qualify for this tax credit for seniors based on your age, filing status, and income. To receive the Credit for the Elderly or Disabled, you must first apply, then file using Form 1040 or Form 1040A. If you file using Form 1040EZ, you won’t qualify for the credit.

Health Coverage Tax Credit

The Health Coverage Tax Credit (HCTC) was extended through Dec. 31, 2021. All advanced payments will end on that date. The HCTC refunds 72.5% of qualified health insurance premiums to eligible individuals between 55 and 65 years old and their families. If you qualify, you may elect to receive this tax credit for seniors either through advance monthly payments paid directly to your health plan administrator or through your federal tax return.

Retirement contributions

You can still make tax-deductible contributions to your retirement accounts even if you are retired or semi-retired. Adding to your retirement account lowers your taxable income for the year and helps you defer or avoid taxes on more money. If you’re over the age of 50, the maximum contributions, which are higher than those for younger age groups, are:

COVID-19 assistance

The IRS provided tax relief, economic impact support payments, and changes to retirement plans during the pandemic this year. For example, qualified individuals affected by COVID-19 may also be able to withdraw up to $100,000 from their eligible retirement plans, including IRAs. These distributions are subject to regular tax, but they can be included as income on tax returns over a three-year period, meaning they must be paid back within three years.

IRA distributions to charity

If you are over age 70.5 and must withdraw required minimum distributions (RMD) from your IRA, you may directly transfer up to $100,000 per year to qualified charities. The IRA distribution is excluded from your taxable income and counts toward your RMD for the year, but it doesn’t count as a charitable contribution.

If you itemize your deductions, this lowers your adjusted gross income (AGI) and can impact other areas, such as medical expenses, passive losses, and taxable Social Security income. If you don’t itemize your deductions, you essentially receive the benefit of a charitable contribution to help offset your IRA distribution.

Investment expenses

You can earn money from investments even after you retire, but interest, dividends, and capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than other income sources. If you took a loss when you sold your investments, you can also use that loss to reduce your taxable income — and carry it over from year to year. Plus, you can deduct a limited amount of investment-related expenses, such as legal fees and professional consulting.

Medical and dental expenses

Seniors often have higher medical expenses than other taxpayers, but some of these expenses may be tax deductible. If you itemize your deductions for a taxable year on Schedule A (Form 1040 or 1040-SR), Itemized Deductions, you may be able to deduct expenses you paid that year for medical and dental care for yourself, your spouse, and your dependents. You may deduct only the amount of your total medical expenses that exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income, down from 10% last year.
 
At the same time, the higher standard tax deduction for seniors may make this irrelevant to you because it may exceed your total itemized deductions.

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Programs that offer free tax help for seniors

You may think you can’t afford to hire professional advice, but a variety of reliable resources are available for tax preparation, filing, and planning at no cost to you.

Tax Counseling for the Elderly

Seniors age 60 or older can take advantage of Tax Counseling for the Elderly (TCE), an IRS-funded program administered by nonprofit organizations and operated by volunteer tax professionals.

Volunteer Income Tax Assistance

Ideal for seniors who still earn taxable income below $57,000, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) offers income tax return preparation and filing by volunteer tax professionals, as well as counseling on how to reduce your tax liability with tax credit and deductions. IRS-certified VITA volunteers are restricted from preparing certain tax forms, such as a Schedule C showing income losses, so if your situation is particularly complicated, the IRS recommends hiring a paid professional instead.

AARP Foundation Tax Aide

For taxpayers over the age of 50, the American Association of Retired People (AARP) Foundation offers tax prep and counsel through volunteer, IRS-certified tax professionals. You don’t have to be an AARP member to take advantage of this service.
 
TCE and VITA also help with state income tax for senior citizens, but additional resources in your local community may offer more specialized help with preparing and filing state taxes. Check with individual state tax bureaus or treasury departments, state bar associations, and local CPA or tax preparer associations to find help near you.

Tips to make filing next year easier

  • Knowing what you’re entitled to as a senior is one of the easiest ways to stay prepared for filing your taxes. Your financial situation may change from year to year, so even if you’ve filed senior taxes in the past, you may consider a different method from year to year.
  • Keep good records of such items as retirement savings accounts, tax-loss harvesting, and charitable contributions so you can easily find these documents for tax season.
  • If your total itemized deductions fall below the new standard deduction, consider “bunching” your itemized deductions into a single year, then skipping one or two years and taking the standard deduction.
  • Be aware of telephone, postal mail, and email scams posing as the IRS. Never give out personal or financial information over the phone or through email. Ignore emails claiming to be from the IRS. They will not communicate your account status through email. Only use contact numbers on the official IRS website; don’t return calls to numbers provided by callers.
  • Visit the IRS online to get additional tax help for seniors and retirees.

This article may contain links to third party websites, but Medico is neither responsible nor liable for their content, accuracy, or security. Review our Terms and Conditions to learn more.

Photo credit: iStock

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