Tax changes can boost refund

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You might be able to reel in some extra cash by filing the right tax forms — but be aware of at least one change that could cost you.

An array of tax cuts and refunds took effect in 2009 to spur the economy, so most Americans qualify for something when they file their 2009 tax returns.

Here's what you may have coming — or going:

Homebuyers

If you bought your first home in 2009, you will be entitled to a tax credit up to $8,000, and if you had a home and bought a new residence after Nov. 6, you could qualify for up to $6,500.

There's an $800,000 lid on prices, as well as income limits.

"Nov. 7 is a magical date," said Amy McAnarney, executive director of the H&R Block Tax Institute. If you bought the home before then, the income cutoff for singles is $95,000 and couples, $170,000. After Nov. 7 it's $145,000 and $245,000. Oh, you have to live in the house for three years after the purchase.

And you will have to file your taxes by paper, said Smith. That's because you must submit paperwork documenting the settlement date for the home purchase, sales price and address. Use Form 5405.

Unemployment income

The first $2,400 of unemployment compensation in 2009 might not get taxed. But the break is not automatic.

Electronic software such as TaxAct or TurboTax will do the math for you, but if you use a paper form, make sure you do the calculation.

Child tax/earned income credit

With layoffs rampant and much of unemployment compensation exempt from taxes, people who never qualified for a child tax credit or earned income credit for lower-income households will this year, said McAnarney. So, people who owe little in taxes could get more than $5,000 from the government.

Single filers with income up to $75,000 can qualify for some money, and the credits now apply to up to three children, compared with two in the past. Use Form 8812 for the child tax credit and find details on the earned income tax credit at www.irs.gov/individuals.

If you are eager to get your check, file your return via the Internet, and the refund should arrive in a couple of weeks. The government offers free software at www.irs.gov/efile and free help at www.irs.gov/individuals.

Car purchases

If you used the "cash for clunkers" program, you don't need to do more paperwork. But anyone who bought a car can deduct sales or excise tax paid on a car priced up to $49,500, provided their income isn't more than $135,000 as a single payer or $260,000 per couple. No need to itemize; just use Schedule L.

College credits

If you or your children are in college, the credits are more generous than in the past, said Mark Steber, chief tax officer for Jackson Hewitt. Instead of using a Hope Credit for the first two years of college, you can use the American Opportunity Credit for up to $2,500 per student for each of first four years of post-secondary education — undergraduate college programs or technical educations.

If your income is so low that you don't pay taxes, you can still recover up to $1,000 related to tuition, books and fees, said Smith. The credit provides 20 percent of the first $10,000 in qualified expenses, which may include a computer required specifically for a course, Steber said.

Income limits are $90,000 for singles and $180,000 for couples. Students must be attending college at least half time.

If you are enhancing your education through a single course or graduate school, use the Lifetime Learning Credit.

And there's the interest paid on student loans.

Military families

Military families have been receiving new tax benefits the last couple years, and they are explained at http://www.irs.gov/individuals/military/index.html . This year, spouses of military members can file their taxes in their home state if they prefer a lower rate there over that of the state where their spouse is stationed.

Withholding/$250 checks

If you noticed that you were getting a little more pay in your paycheck, it might have been because the government reduced the amount withheld for taxes by $400 for individuals and $800 for couples.

And seniors and disabled veterans received $250 checks in the mail.

Even those who weren't withholding money from their pay can get a refund by completing a tax return.

This year's tax return "will be an eye-opener for some people," said Kelly Smith, director of individual tax for TaxAct software. "Some people received checks in the mail without realizing what they were."

Others, with relatively high incomes, received more in their paychecks than they will be allowed to keep. Cutoffs are at $95,000 for singles and $190,000 for couples.

gmarksjarvis@tribune.com

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