Personal Finance

Lost these tax breaks on your federal return? Your state might let you have them

Key Points
  • The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act raised the standard deduction to $12,000 for singles and $24,000 for married-filing jointly. Fewer people are expected to itemize on their returns.
  • Many states will still allow you to itemize deductions on your state return — even if you take the standard deduction on your federal return.
  • Tax breaks allowed on state returns include real estate taxes, unreimbursed employee expenses and deductions for federal income taxes paid.
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Late filers: Don't shred those receipts just yet. You might be able to nab a break on your state tax return.

We are closing in on the final days of the 2018 filing season. It's the first time taxpayers are submitting returns under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.

This overhaul of the federal tax code roughly doubled the standard deduction to $12,000 for single filers ($24,000 for married-filing-jointly), did away with personal exemptions and limited itemized deductions.

As a result of these changes, about 30 million fewer households will itemize in 2018, compared to 2017, according to the Joint Committee on Taxation.

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Be aware that just because you take the standard deduction on your federal return, doesn't mean you can't itemize on your state return. In fact, "most states allow itemized deductions," said Nathan Rigney, lead tax research analyst at the Tax Institute at H&R Block.

However, "there are 12 states and Washington, D.C., that will allow you to itemize on your state tax return only if you itemize on your federal," said Rigney.

Those 12 are Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Utah and Virginia, he said.

Differences in state law

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State tax laws don't always mirror the federal code.

"Most states don't use the federal standard deduction; they have a much smaller and less generous deduction," said Rigney. "So it's a lower threshold to itemize."

For instance, single filers in New York have a standard deduction of $8,000. That number goes up to $16,050 if they're married and filing jointly.

These differences in state law versus federal don't always work to the advantage of residents.

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Here's an example: Your pretax contributions to workplace benefits — cash you save in health savings accounts, medical and dependent care flexible spending accounts, and group health plans — aren't considered wages for federal income tax purposes.

As a result, saving in these programs reduces your taxable income and lowers your tax liability on your federal return.

In New Jersey, these so-called cafeteria plan benefits are typically included in taxable wages.

"People get a shock, you'll see these benefits are deductible federally, but then New Jersey taxes you at a higher income," said Sharif Muhammad, a CPA and certified financial planner at Unlimited Financial Services in Somerset, New Jersey.

State tax deductions

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Talk to your tax preparer or CPA about the itemized deductions that you might still be eligible for on your state return – and don't forget to bring those receipts.

Here are a few breaks that are in play.

Unreimbursed employee expenses: The federal tax overhaul suspended unreimbursed employee expenses, which is part of a group of miscellaneous itemized deductions. In the past, you were able to claim these if they exceeded 2% of your adjusted gross income.

A handful of states still permit this break, including Arkansas, Pennsylvania and Minnesota, Rigney said.

Other taxes you've paid: The federal deduction for state and local taxes, including levies paid on income and property, are now capped at $10,000.

Check with your state to see if you can nab an itemized deduction for taxes you've paid. "Many states allow a deduction of real estate taxes paid on your state tax return," said Rigney.

Some states also allow a deduction for federal income taxes paid.

Medical expenses: Qualified medical expenses must exceed 7.5% of your adjusted gross income in order to be deductible on your federal income tax return (10% for 2019).

The threshold might be lower on your state tax return, however. For example, those costs only have to exceed 2% of your income to be deductible in New Jersey.

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