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SALT and Your Taxes


One of the big topics again this tax season is SALT. This is not a seasoning for food, but rather SALT stands for state and local taxes. The treatment of these expenses in terms of their deductibility for those who itemize was a major change beginning with the 2018 tax year, arising out of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017.

What is SALT?

As mentioned above this includes state and local taxes. In most cases the biggest components will be your state income tax, state and local sales taxes and the real estate taxes on your home.

The SALT cap 

Beginning with the 2018 tax year, SALT taxes have been capped at $10,000 as an itemized deduction. This represents a significant reduction for many taxpayers compared to prior years. Those in states with high state income taxes and areas with high real estate taxes will likely feel the greatest impact.

Our latest real estate tax bill alone has put us over the cap limit. The state income tax rate for Illinois stands at 4.95%. As with the 2018 tax year, his means that none of the state income taxes on income earned by my wife and I will be eligible as an itemized deduction for 2019 and beyond. These rules extend through the 2025 tax year.

Fewer taxpayers can itemize 

One estimate indicated that the number of itemizers would drop from about 46.5 million in 2017 to about 18 million in 2018. The increase in the standard deduction is another major change impacting the ability to itemize along with the SALT cap.

  • For those filing married and joint the standard deduction increased from $12,740 to $24,000 for 2018. For the 2019 tax year this increases to $24,400, it increases to $24,800 for 2020.
  • For single filers the standard deduction increased from $6,350 to $12,000. For the 2019 tax year this increases to $12,200, it increases to $12,400 for 2020.

This means for those with itemized deductions less than these amounts it makes financial sense to just take the standard deduction.

What impact does the SALT cap have on your taxes? 

Beyond whether or not you can still itemize deductions, you will need to determine the effect of the SALT cap and other changes under the new rules on your overall tax situation.

For example, a married couple might have previously been able to claim $18,000 in itemized deductions prior to the new rules. Now with the SALT cap, their itemized deductions will be lower, and they will be forced to claim the standard deduction. However, the $24,400 standard deduction for 2019 likely provides a greater benefit than the amount they itemized in prior years.

Other factors to consider:

  • Tax rates are generally lower than in prior years starting with 2018.
  • Some businesses and the self-employed might be eligible for a pass-through deduction of 20% of their business income in some cases. In our case this will be helpful to our situation for 2018 and will be again in 2019.
  • The income limits on the child-care credit have been increased allowing more parents to take advantage of this credit. Remember a direct credit on your taxes is worth more than a deduction in income.
  • The alternative minimum tax will impact fewer taxpayers than in past years due to changes in the income limits.
  • Along with the increase in the standard deduction, the personal exemption has been repealed under the new rules. This was worth $4,050 per person in 2017.

The point is the SALT cap will impact each of us differently depending upon our situation.

The impact on real estate

Some have said that the SALT cap was retribution to those in “blue” states that didn’t support the president in the last election. I’ll leave that to you the reader to decide.

This cap disproportionately impacts states with high state income taxes and relatively high real estate values. According to one study, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, California and Maryland were the top five states in terms of the deduction for SALT as a percentage of taxpayer’s AGI (adjusted gross income) in 2016.

The inability to fully deduct property taxes and mortgage interest will make the after-tax cost of buying a home in high cost areas more expensive. Some have speculated that the cap on the ability to deduct these taxes might influence decisions about where people live and potentially cause some people to relocate to lower tax, lower cost states. It could also have an impact on the level of housing starts in these high cost areas, and the fortunes of home builders and related industries.

Planning around the SALT cap

Most of the changes enacted as part of the Tax Cut and Jobs Act expire after the 2025 tax year, so the SALT cap will be around for a few years. Here are some planning considerations.

Bunch deductible expenses. This could involve deferring or accelerating expenses that are eligible for itemizing into one year to get you over the standard deduction threshold. A couple of examples:

  • Bunch your charitable contributions in to a single year. If you were going to make say $5,000 in contributions over several years, bunch all or as much of that amount as possible into a single year if it will help you to reach the level where you will be able to itemize.
  • Same thought process as above with elective medical expenses. If there is a procedure or other elective expense, plan to incur it in the year that is most beneficial tax-wise if possible.

Consider directing some of your RMD to charity. For those who are taking required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts, consider using the QCD (qualified charitable deduction) to contribute some or all of your RMD to a qualified charity. There is no charitable deduction, but the amount of the QCD is not subject to federal taxes.

Max out your retirement plan contributions. This has nothing to do with itemized deductions, but this can provide the double benefit of a larger tax break if you aren’t currently doing this along with the added savings for retirement. If your company offers a 401(k) or similar plan be sure that you are contributing as much as possible. If you are self-employed be sure that you have a retirement plan set-up and that you are contributing as much as possible as well.

Review your mortgage and real estate situation. It may behoove you to pay down your mortgage if you can, especially if you can no longer itemize. If you are looking at buying a new home, be sure to take the SALT cap into account when calculating the after-tax cost of ownership.

The Bottom Line 

Tax season is a good time to take a look at your tax situation not only for last year but also going forward. Be sure to consult with a qualified tax or financial professional to help you review your situation as needed.

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