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Tax Breaks After 50 You Can't Afford to Miss

IRS tax code offers perks to taxpayers of a certain age

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If you’re 50 or older, there is one benefit to reaching this milestone that you may be overlooking: tax breaks aimed right at you. Now you can contribute more to your Roth or traditional individual retirement account (IRA), to your employer-sponsored plan or to your health savings account (HSA) than you could when you were younger. You can even exclude more income from your tax computations.

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Congress included some of these provisions in the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act, which took effect in 2002, out of concern that the boomer generation had not saved enough for retirement. Congress included other tax-saving provisions, such as a bigger standard deduction, in the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017.

If you’re behind on your retirement savings, the tax law gives you a chance to catch up. And if you’re in retirement, or near it, the tax code allows you to pay a bit less in taxes. That’s a combination you shouldn’t pass up.

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Contribute more to your retirement fund

For 2022, the contribution limit for employees who participate in 401(k), 403(b), most 457 retirement saving plans and the federal government's Thrift Savings Plan has been increased to $20,500, from $19,500 in 2021. Employees 50 and older can add an additional $6,500, for a total of $27,000.

The contribution limit for a traditional or Roth IRA is unchanged, at $6,000. The catch-up is $1,000, the same as for 2021. It is $3,000 for a Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) plan.

However, many folks are missing this opportunity. Despite generous catch-up provisions for those 55 and older, just 15 percent of those who are eligible are making them, according to the Vanguard Group’s “How America Saves 2021” report.

At the same time, data from the National Retirement Risk Index (NRRI) compiled by the Boston College Center for Retirement Research indicates that half of all American households won’t be able to afford their current standard of living once their regular paychecks stop. As of June 2020, 50 percent of married retirees were relying on Social Security payments for half of their income; for single people, that number was 70 percent. For 2022, the average Social Security retirement benefit is estimated at just $1,657 a month. 

Those retirement contributions can lower your tax bill

Aside from making your retirement more comfortable, contributing to a tax-deferred retirement plan, such as an IRA or a 401(k), also reduces your income — which, in turn, reduces your income taxes. Thanks to that reduction in taxes, increasing your contribution won’t take as much of a bite from your paycheck as you might think. If you earn $75,000 a year, for example, a 5 percent contribution to your 401(k) would put $144 into your account, assuming a 25 percent tax rate. But your biweekly paycheck will fall by just $108, according to Fidelity Investments.

Contributions to a traditional IRA are tax-deductible as long as you meet IRS rules, including income limits. IRA contributions are fully deductible if you (and your spouse) aren't covered by a retirement plan at work. However, the deduction may be limited if you are (or your spouse is) covered by a workplace retirement plan and your income exceeds certain limits. For 2022, IRA deductions for singles covered by a retirement plan at work aren't allowed after modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) hits $78,000; the deduction disappears for married couples filing jointly when MAGI hits $109,000.

Retirement contributions made to a Roth IRA or Roth 401(k) are done on an after-tax basis: You get no upfront tax break for these contributions, but withdrawals taken from Roths in retirement are tax-free. The pretax money in traditional IRAs and 401(k)s grows tax-free, but you'll eventually pay taxes when you start making withdrawals in retirement.

Because saving an additional $6,500 to a 401(k) may be challenging for some, Nicole Gopoian Wirick, a certified financial planner (CFP) at Prosperity Wealth Strategies in Birmingham, Michigan, advises her clients to have the catch-up amount divided evenly over each paycheck and deducted automatically. “Contributing $250 over 26 pay periods may seem more attainable,” she says.

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Clark Randall, a CFP at Financial Enlightenment in Dallas, Texas, encourages his clients to rethink their budgets to increase their regular retirement contributions throughout the year. “Budgeting for this expense is the same as any other. It takes discipline and compromise.”

If you still want to make catch-up contributions to a traditional IRA or Roth IRA for 2021, you have time. The deadline is April 15, the filing date for your tax return, unless you file for an extension. However, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, Thrift Savings Plans and most 457 plans go by the calendar year, so you’ll be investing for 2022 and have until the end of the year to do so.

You can wait until 72 to start your RMDs

Speaking of which, there's also good news on required minimum distributions (RMDs), the minimum amount you must withdraw from a tax-deferred retirement plan, such as a traditional IRA. (Roth IRAs don't require distributions while the owner is alive.)

Under rules that kicked in in 2020, you can wait until the year in which you reach age 72 before having to start taking RMDs. Previously, the age was 70 1/2. If you don't need the RMD, consider donating it to charity. If you donate your RMD to a qualified charity directly from your retirement account, up to $100,000, you won't owe income tax on the distribution.

Don’t forget your HSA

If your employer offers a health savings account (HSA), you’ll want to make sure to take full advantage of it. The IRS allows you to deduct your contributions to your retirement account from your gross income, even if you don’t itemize, and those made by your employer are excluded from your gross income, too. Any earnings are tax-free. Your distributions aren’t taxed, provided you use them for qualified medical expenses, of which there are many — from ambulance rides to X-rays. Plus, the account is yours: You can take it with you to a new job and use the funds in retirement.

For 2022, you can contribute up to $3,650 if you have coverage for yourself, or up to $7,300 for family coverage. The catch-up is an additional $1,000 if you reach 55 during the year. However, your contribution limit is reduced by any amount your employer contributed that has been excluded from your income.

You get a bigger standard deduction at 65

The standard deduction, which reduces your taxable income and, in turn, lowers your tax bill, gets better with age. In 2022, when you fill out your federal income tax forms for income earned in 2021, married couples will get a standard deduction of $25,100, up $300 from tax year 2020. For single taxpayers and married individuals filing separately, the standard deduction rises to $12,550, up $150 from the previous year.

If you are 65 or older and file as a single taxpayer, you get an extra $1,700 standard deduction for tax year 2021 and an extra $1,750 for tax year 2022. Married and filing jointly? The extra standard deduction is less per person if only one person is 65 or older — $1,350 for the tax year. If both are 65 or older, the standard deduction increases by $2,700. For taxpayers who are both 65-plus and blind, the extra deduction is doubled.

The only drawback for some taxpayers with the higher standard deduction is that it sets a very high bar for itemizing deductions. It doesn't make sense to itemize if your deductions aren't higher than the standard deduction. Nevertheless, a deduction is a deduction, and getting a larger standard deduction is something to cheer about.

Bonus: If you're 65 and up and have a straightforward return, you might be able to use the new simplified Form 1040-SR for seniors. It has larger type for those who still file taxes by paper, there are places to enter such things as Social Security benefits and retirement distributions, and there's a handy chart that shows the bigger standard deductions.

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Take your charitable deduction before it goes away

Because the standard deduction is so high, many people are no longer able to itemize their deductions. (It makes no sense to itemize if you get a bigger bang for your buck from the standard deduction.) For tax year 2021, however, a person filing a single return can take a $300 deduction for cash gifts to qualified charities. Those filing jointly can take $600. You can take this deduction if you take the standard deduction but not if you itemize.

You may want to dab your eyes a bit as you take this deduction: It goes away in tax year 2022.

Patricia Amend has been a lifestyle writer and editor for 30 years. She was a staff writer at Inc. magazine; a reporter at the Fidelity Publishing Group; and a senior editor at Published Image, a financial education company that was acquired by Standard & Poor’s.

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