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Brand New for '02

Much has happened that will affect the preparation of your 2002 income tax returns. Many provisions of the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 first became effective in 2002. And don't forget about the passage of the Job Creation and Workers Assistance Act of 2002.

But those weren't the only two pieces of legislation that will affect your 2002 tax return. Our legislators were busy also passing the Clergy Housing Allowance Clarification Act of 2002, the Trade Act of 2002, and the Victims of Terrorism Relief Act of 2001 (which was enacted in January 2002).

Can you say, "tax simplification"? I didn't think so.

Nevertheless, all of these legislative gems have some impact on taxes, and there are literally dozens of brand-new provisions that kicked in last year. Let's take a look at a few of the major changes.

Rate reduction: Tax brackets were reduced by 0.5% for 2002. The 2002 bracket rates are 10%, 15%, 27%, 30%, 35%, and 38.6%.

Credit card payments: VISA cards are now on the list of accepted credit cards for making tax payments. The other cards are MasterCard, Discover, and American Express.

Deductions for educators' expenses: Qualified educators are allowed an "above the line" deduction of up to $250 for classroom expenses, including books, supplies, and computer equipment.

Weight-loss programs: Expenses paid by individuals (other than for the cost of diet foods) to participate in weight-loss programs are deemed deductible medical expenses. While these programs must be for the treatment of a specific disease diagnosed by a physician, obesity is included as a disease. Health-club memberships? The IRS has provided guidance, but it seems to somewhat contradictory. If you think that you might qualify for this deduction, make sure that you're aware of the details.

Tax-free sale of primary residence due to unforeseen circumstances: The IRS has recently announced that it will issue regulations defining "unforeseen circumstances" as it applies to the partial gain from the sale of a primary residence. These unforeseen circumstances will likely include the death of the taxpayer's spouse, man-made disasters, divorce, acts of war, and terrorism.

Qualified tuition programs: Distributions are tax-free if used for qualified higher-education expenses. Additionally, education credits can be claimed in the same year as a tax-free distribution from a qualified tuition program, but not for the same expenses.

Education IRAs: These are now known as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, but regardless of what you call them, the annual contribution limitation has been increased from $500 to $2,000. Additionally, the contributions can be made up to the original due date of the tax return (April 15, 2003, for the 2002 tax year). The definition of qualified expenses has been expanded to include primary education (K-12th grade) expenses. And the phase-out range for joint filers has been increased to a modified adjusted gross income (AGI) of $190,000-$220,000.

Qualified tuition deduction: This is an "above the line" deduction for up to $3,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses paid for the higher education of yourself, your spouse, or your dependents. The deduction is not allowed when modified AGI exceeds $65,000 for single and head of household filers, and $130,000 for joint filers. The tuition deduction cannot be claimed in the same year that an education credit is claimed for the same student. In addition, the same expenses can't be used to claim both the tuition deduction and tax-free distributions from qualified tuition programs or Coverdell ESAs.

Student loan interest deduction: The modified AGI phase-out ranges for claiming the deduction have been increased. The new limits are $50,000-$65,000 for single and head of household filers, and $100,000-$130,000 for joint filers. Additionally, the 60-month rule for claiming the deduction no longer applies.

Adoption credit: The maximum credit increases to $10,000 per adoption of an eligible child. The modified AGI phase-out limitations are increased to $150,000-$190,000, and these limitations are the same for all filers.

IRA contributions: The maximum allowable contribution to both traditional and Roth IRAs increased to $3,000. Additionally, individuals age 50 or older at the end of the year are allowed an additional catch-up contribution of up to $500.

SEP and SIMPLE IRA contributions: These contribution limits have also been increased. The maximum contribution percentage to a SEP account has increased from 15% to 25%. And the maximum allowable elective deferral to a SIMPLE IRA has increased to $7,000.

Retirement savings contribution credit: This is a new credit of up to 50% of the first $2,000 contributed to a traditional or Roth IRA, 401(k) plan, 403(b) plan, Section 457 plan, or a SIMPLE IRA. The maximum credit is $1,000, but is completely phased out at a modified AGI of $25,000 for single filers, $37,500 for head of household filers, and $50,000 for joint filers. Many people are going to overlook this credit, which will be especially valuable for younger workers.

Interest and dividend reporting: You're no longer required to report, on a separate schedule B, your interest or dividend income if that income is less than $1,500 (an increase from the prior threshold of $400).

These are just a few of the new provisions that you should keep in mind as you complete your 2002 tax return. And just some of the information you need. If you plan to take advantage of any of these new rules, make sure you do more research.

The tax laws are becoming more and more complex each year. The days of "tax simplification" are long gone. It's up to you to make sure that you take every deduction and credit that you're allowed. Paying your fair share of taxes is good. Paying somebody else's fair share is not so good. Make sure that you don't overpay.

Roy Lewis lives in a trailer down by the river and is a motivational speaker when not dealing with tax issues, and he understands that The Motley Fool is all about investors writing for investors. You can take a look at the stocks he owns as long as you promise not to ask him which stock to buy. He'll be glad to help you compute your gain or loss when you finally sell a stock, though.


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