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A Taxing Time: Keep Tax-Law
Changes in Mind This April

Associated Press
NEW YORK — Did you know ...

You only have to hold property for a year to become eligible for the lowest capital gains tax? There are tax credits to ease the expense of college tuition? Married taxpayers have some recourse against their (tax) cheating spouses?

If you didn't, perhaps it's time to bone up on some changes in the tax law, especially if you're among the many die-hard taxpayers determined to prepare their own returns in the coming weeks.

Several provisions of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997 went into effect last year, including ones pertaining to capital gains, tuition credits and innocent spouses. Also enacted: The Internal Revenue Service Restructuring and Reform Act of 1998, which became law on July 22, and the Tax and Trade Relief Extension Act of 1998, on the books Oct. 21.

Some of the more notable changes in tax year 1998 involved Individual Retirement Accounts and the additional savings options now available.

The Roth IRA was one. In this new account, those meeting certain income requirements (a phase-out begins for individuals grossing $95,000 a year and married couples at $150,000) can make nondeductible contributions in which the earned income is tax-exempt upon withdrawal. That's part of what makes it so attractive.

Also, you don't have to wait until retirement to access the account, without incurring tax penalties. In some instances, you can make penalty-free withdrawals for a new home or for college expenses. The same holds true for traditional IRA holders.

You have until April 15 to open an IRA for tax year '98. While you can still convert a traditional IRA to a Roth, it's too late to take advantage of a one-time tax break that allows the income tax owed on the conversion to be spread out over four years. That deadline came and went on Dec. 31.

The Education IRA also was introduced last year as a means to help middle-income families meet rising college costs. Up to $500 can be contributed tax-free per child for educational expenses each year.

Here are highlights of some of the other significant changes in the tax code, which may affect tax preparers this year:

— Capital gains. Congress shortened the capital gains holding period, which enables taxpayers to receive the lowest capital gains tax rate, from 18 months to 12 months. That means sellers of stocks, bonds and real estate need only hold the property for a year to be eligible for the low 20 percent rate, or 10 percent if you're in the 15 percent tax bracket, after a sale is made and a gain realized.

A note for homeowners: You may now escape taxes on some of the gains on a home sale even if you don't meet the two-year ownership rule. The government uses a special formula for prorating gains, but says the sale must be due to job relocation, illness or some unforeseen circumstance. (You can completely exclude up to $250,000 of gain, or $500,000 if you're married filing jointly, on the sale of a home, but you must own and occupy it at least two years before the sale.)

— Innocent spouse relief. Married folks filing joint returns are each liable for taxes owed and assessments arising from an audit. However, several provisions were added to the tax code to provide relief for spouses who can establish they didn't know taxes weren't being paid and for situations among the divorced and separated in which an additional tax is clearly the other spouse's responsibility. If you're divorced, legally separated, or have lived apart from a spouse for at least a year, you may elect innocent spouse relief up to two years after the IRS initiates a collection action.

— Child tax credit. You can now claim an annual tax credit of $400 per dependent child under age 17; in tax year '99 it rises to $500 per child. The credit phases out, however, for single parents with adjusted gross income starting of $75,000 and married couples earning $110,000.

— Education tax credits. The Hope scholarship credit was established to also help defray higher education expenses, like qualified tuition. A maximum $1,500 credit can be taken per year for the first two years of college. For the second two, there's the Lifetime Learning credit, up to $1,000.

A deduction for student loan interest also can be taken. For tax year 1998, it begins at $1,000, and reaches $2,500 by 2001.

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