Alice Jones has lived in the same Baltimore house for more than 45 years. With Social Security as her only income, Jones can use some financial help.
She gets it from the Maryland Homeowners' Property Tax Credit Program, which limits the amount of property taxes a homeowner pays based on income.
The credit is called a "circuit breaker" because it turns off the property tax for low-income homeowners just like an electrical circuit breaker turns off power. The deadline to apply is Sept. 1.
For Jones, the circuit breaker means she pays $500 in property taxes each year — $1,300 less than the full bill.
"It helps me out a lot," said Jones, 71, who retired after working for 35 years at Westinghouse. But for almost 20 years after the tax credit was established in 1975, she knew nothing of its existence.
Then a neighbor, Clarence "Tiger" Davis, suggested she apply. At the time, Davis was a member of the House of Delegates; he became AARP Maryland state president in March.
Other eligible homeowners who are unaware of the credit often learn about it from AARP Foundation Tax-Aide volunteers who help them complete state and federal income tax forms. Tax-Aide has a special focus on low-income people 60 and older.
"They're just the type of person eligible for the tax credit," said Jen Holz, AARP Maryland associate state director for outreach.
When it was established, the tax credit was limited to older homeowners. In 1978, the General Assembly expanded the eligibility to include all homeowners who meet income guidelines. Even so, 80 percent of the recipients last year were 60 or older.
"The aging population in Baltimore could not maintain their quality of life" without the tax credit, Davis said. "It makes a difference."
- To qualify, a taxpayer must:
- Own the property;
- Live there at least six months of the year (including July 1), although there are some exceptions;
- Have a net worth — not including the property — of less than $200,000;
- Have a combined gross household income of less than $60,000. To receive the tax credit, taxpayers must report their total income, which means income before any deductions are taken. This includes Social Security benefits or pensions.
Anyone meeting the requirements receives the credit. To calculate the amount of the credit, the state uses a formula based on the amount that the property tax exceeds a percentage of the homeowner's income.
For instance, the tax limit is $420 for a property owner whose combined household income is $16,000. If the actual tax bill was $990, the owner would get a credit of $570.
Last year roughly 51,000 homeowners received an average credit of $1,213.
The state reimburses counties and Baltimore city for the property taxes they do not receive because of the program. Last year, the state reimbursements totaled $62 million.
Homeowners must apply for the credit annually; the state mails applications to anyone who received the credit the previous year.
Renters' tax credit
Although Maryland has lower property taxes compared with many other states, Davis said the program is vital for many older people who want to maintain their lifestyle even though their incomes may have dropped when they retired.
"They would not be in their own homes if it was not for the circuit breaker," he said.
The state also offers assistance to low-income renters who meet certain requirements. Renters can receive a check of up to $750, based on the ratio between rent and income. Last year, nearly 8,200 renters, most of whom were 60 or older, received an average of $300.
David Baumann is a writer living in Annapolis, Md.
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