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What's New for Taxes in 2012?

Expanded 401(k) contributions, other changes may reduce your taxes

En español | Changes in federal taxes for 2012 are wide-ranging and may result in lower tax bills for many taxpayers. Since the 1980s, the federal tax code has required adjustments to compensate for inflation, which was 3.9 percent in the last 12 months.

See also: Cut your taxes for 2011.

Here's a rundown of the some of the most important changes that may affect you:

  • Exemption. The personal and dependent exemption will increase to $3,800, from $3,700.
  • Tax brackets. The thresholds for tax brackets will increase. For a married couple filing jointly, the point at which the 15 percent bracket moves up to 25 percent will rise to $70,700, up from $69,000 in 2011. For single filers, the 25 percent bracket will start at $35,350, up from $34,500 in 2011.

    As a result of the tax bracket changes, a married couple with taxable income of $100,000 filing jointly would pay about $190 less in federal income tax. Single filers will enjoy similar reductions.
New tax deductions guidelines in 2012- uncle sam holding a can with coins in it

Photo by: Peter Gridley/Getty Images

What tax changes did Uncle Sam make that could save you money in 2012?

  • Standard deductions. Filers taking the standard deduction will benefit from increases in all filing categories. For example, the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly will increase by $300. For single filers and married couples filing separately, the standard deduction will increase by $150. According to the IRS, about two out of three taxpayers claim the standard deduction.
  • 401(k)s. The maximum allowable contribution to 401(k) pension plans without the need to pay upfront taxes increases from $16,500 in 2011 to $17,000 for 2012.

This is the first increase in the maximum contribution since 2009 because inflation had been too low to trigger an increase. The increase also applies to 403(b) plans, most 457 plans and the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan.

Of course, not everyone is in a position to make the maximum allowable contribution. "In that case," says Jean Setzfand, vice president of financial security at AARP, "at the very least, you should contribute as much as your employer is willing to match."

Next: Roth IRAs, EITC. >>

  • Catch-up limit. The catch-up contribution limit for people 50 and older stays the same at $5,500. The catch-up contribution is intended to give 50-plus participants an added boost to their retirement nest eggs.
  • Roth IRAs. The amount you can put into a Roth IRA as a regular contribution is reduced or eliminated if your income goes above certain levels. In an Oct. 20 announcement on pension plan limitations for 2012, the IRS said that the income phase-out for married couples filing jointly will rise to the range of $173,000 to $183,000, up from $169,000 to $179,000 in 2011.

    According to the nonprofit Employee Benefit Research Institute, only 33 percent of workers ages 21 to 64 took advantage of 401(k) plans in 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available.

    And, according to the institute, only 9 percent of people who do have a 401(k) contributed the maximum dollar amount to their plans in 2005, the most recent year for which that data is available.
  • Federal estate tax exclusion. The federal estate tax exclusion will rise to $5.12 million in 2012, up from $5 million in 2011. However the annual gift tax exclusion will remain at $13,000.
  • EITC. The maximum earned income tax credit (EITC) will increase to $5,891, up from $5,751 in 2011. The earned income tax credit is a refundable federal income tax credit for low- to moderate-income working individuals and families. The allowable credit varies by family size and other factors.

Also of interest: Get more tax tips. >>

William J. Lynott is an author and freelance writer who specializes in business and financial issues.

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