The 5 Most Popular Tax Deductions: Do You Qualify for Them?

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Just less than one in three taxpayers claim itemized deductions on their tax returns, with the vast majority choosing instead simply to take the standard deduction, according to the latest available IRS figures, from the 2012 tax year. Yet that still means that more than 46 million returns include itemized-deduction statements, and the figures reveal the several key deductions that more Americans rely on than any other tax breaks available. Let's take a look at the five most popular tax deductions and whether you can qualify for them.

5. Tax Preparation Fees

More than 21.7 million taxpayers claimed itemized deductions for tax preparation fees. The total deductions claimed totaled up to $7.2 billion, or an average of about $330 per taxpayer.

That number might seem low, especially given how many people need to get tax help. Yet the thing to remember is that your ability to deduct tax preparation fees and other miscellaneous deductions is limited. Unless those deductions add up to more than 2 percent of your adjusted gross income, you can't deduct a penny -- and even if the amount is greater, you can only deduct whatever the excess is over that 2 percent figure. As a result, despite its popularity, many people who pay for tax preparation find themselves unable to take advantage of this deduction.

4. Home Mortgage Interest

One of the most important deductions available to homeowners is the mortgage interest deduction, which allows you to write off the interest portion of your mortgage payments on your tax return. More than 34.3 million taxpayers reported mortgage interest on which their lenders had provided information, and another 1.2 million deducted interest despite having no documentation from their lenders. The total amount claimed was the highest of any deduction, with taxpayers writing off more than $326 billion.

Interestingly, that figure comes even as mortgage rates remain near record lows. In past years, when mortgage rates were higher, the mortgage interest deduction was an even more important part of reducing your tax liability. Some have called for a limit to the mortgage interest deduction, but given the policy interest in encouraging homeownership, it would take draconian measures to get rid of this highly popular deduction.

3. Gifts to Charity

Americans are well known for their charitable giving, and more than 37.3 million taxpayers deducted a total of nearly $200 billion. More than 90 percent of the taxpayers who claimed charitable deductions listed cash gifts, while 60 percent made gifts other than by cash or check, which includes donations of things like clothes or vehicles. Gifts of cash and checks made up about three-quarters of the total value of the charitable donations, but that still leaves a substantial amount for non-cash gifts. Many nonprofit organizations rely on the tax breaks from charitable giving to spur donations, and that makes it a popular tax break not just for taxpayers but also for charities as well.

2. Property Taxes on Real Estate

Moving back to homeowners, not every property has a mortgage, but just about every piece of real estate carries taxes. That led 39.2 million taxpayers to deduct their real-estate taxes, with total deductions amounting to $173.3 billion.

Taxpayers are allowed to deduct real estate taxes on any property owned, including not only your primary residence but also vacation homes and even open land in your possession. Note that your deduction is based on the amount you actually pay in any given year, so in some cases, paying taxes earlier than they're due can actually boost your deductions in one year at the expense of reducing them in other years. That strategy can help you take advantage of the standard deduction and boost your overall write-offs half the time.

1. State and Local Income and Sales Taxes

The most-often-taken deduction is for state and local income and sales taxes. About 43.9 million taxpayers, or 95 percent of all those who file for itemized deductions, took this deduction, amounting to a total of nearly $300 billion.

Historically, taxpayers used to be able to deduct only state and local income taxes. But in part due to the efforts of lawmakers in states that impose no income tax, the rules changed to allow taxpayers to choose to deduct sales taxes instead of income tax. Still, even though a quarter of all returns claim sales tax deductions, the amounts involved heavily favor the income-tax side, with total deducted amounts of $283 billion for state and local income taxes versus just $16.5 billion for sales taxes.

Motley Fool contributor Dan Caplinger loves helping people cut their taxes. You can follow him on Twitter @DanCaplinger or on Google+. To read about our favorite high-yielding dividend stocks for any investor, check out our free report.
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