I spent several hours this Sunday morning to put some finishing touches to our federal tax return, and the 27-page return is now on its way to IRS this week. I have worked on the tax return since the late January, and by my estimate, I spent around 20 hours on TaxAct to prepare the return, not to count the time throughout the year with Quicken to keep a clean financial record. This is higher than the 15 hours average time burden for filing a tax return on 1040 as estimated by IRS. Maybe I could work on my math in the coming year so I can beat the average :-)
I enjoyed acquiring tax knowledge and preparing my own tax, and I put it to good use in filing the 2013 tax return. 2013 is a year of change for us thanks to the relocation, home buying and car purchase, and throughout the year, whenever I come across a personal finance article on tax that reveals something that might apply to our case, I usually do additional research and put a note to my OneNote so I can remind myself when I start to work on the actual return.
Many of these clippings and notes are bearing fruit. Here are some major wins to get back some dollars kept by Uncle Sam:
State Sales Tax Deduction
Living in a state with no local income tax, we can choose to deduct our state sales tax. In addition to the standard state sales tax deduction amount derived from our income level, we know we can deduct sales tax paid on major purchases like our 2012 Hyundai Veracruz SUV (acquired in February 2013), and major improvement projects like our whole house flooring overhaul and a new furnace. Total additional deduction claimed: $5,889. (This deduction expires on 2014, unless Congress acts to renew it, which it usually did in the last 10 years. I am almost thinking whether I should keep all receipts to get a larger deduction than the standard amount stipulated by IRS -- I have been stuffing all receipts in a plastic bag for two months now.)
Mortgage and Property Tax Deduction
This is an easy one. On top of the mortgage interest deduction and property tax deduction, we knew when we shopped for mortgage that discount point is deductible as well. Total additional deduction claimed: $6,390 (0.75% on the $852,000 initial balance).
Residential Energy Credit
The new furnace we installed to replace the original, 20-year old furnace, met certain energy efficiency targets, and entitled us to the residential energy credit. Total additional credit claimed: $300.
Foreign Tax Credit
We spent more than half of the past 10 years working in China while keeping filing US tax as a green card holder. China has much higher individual income tax than US (top tax rate is 45% for monthly income over 100,000 RMB). Over time, we accumulated over $75,000 foreign tax credit that we carried forward to tax year 2013. I am able to attribute a portion of annual bonus and stock award, or over $68,000 of my 2013 W2 income to China, thus claiming $9,900 foreign tax credit (and keeping carrying over the balance to next year). The other side of the good news: China doesn't assess tax on such income. Total additional credit claimed: $9,900.
Alternative Minimum Tax Credit
And even with all these deductions and credits, I managed to avoid the notorious Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which caught me in 4 of the past 10 years. Even better, in the last minute, I realized that there is an obscure Form 8801 that allows us to claw back the AMT we paid in prior years. Total additional credit claimed: $617.
We expect our final tax refund check to be $10,700, and I don't believe we can get this much if we have someone else filing our tax. I have to admit that I only learned the possibility of attributing portion of my W2 income to China in September when KPMG finalized my 2012 tax return. Otherwise, I would have carefully adjusted my W4 form so I don't give an interest-free loan to the Treasury.
We don't think we can claim that much deductions and credits in our 2014 tax return. After all, we will have no mortgage discount points to deduct, and no car purchase nor major home improvement project is in the plan. Also, I can only attribute a lesser portion of my W2 income to a foreign source. But I do look forward to spending less time on 2014 tax filing as we go into a more normal year.