Tax Advocate: Use tax breaks you're entitled to

Donald Trump's acknowledgement last fall that he had not paid federal income tax in years left some questioning why they should have to pay taxes.

"I think you pay taxes because it's the right thing to do," National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson says.

But that doesn't mean you don't take tax benefits to which you're entitled.

"It's easy to point to some of the provisions that you may feel are in the law that are written to let some people pay zero taxes and ignore that you are getting significant benefits delivered to you through the Internal Revenue code to you, yourself," she said.

Among those:

"If you're an employee, you might be benefiting from employer-provided health insurance or tax-deferred retirement savings," she said. "If you own a home, you may be benefiting from the deduction of mortgage interest, and those are significant."

People tend to focus on special interests during discussions of tax reform. But Olson said, "the biggest special benefits go to the middle class, or anybody who owns a home or has a retirement account or gets employer-provided health insurance."

Tax experts say many people over-pay their taxes because they are not taking advantage of all the credits and deductions to which they are entitled.

Greg Rosica, a tax partner at Ernst & Young, says that could include things like deducting mileage if you drive to volunteer at a charity or drop off a donation of goods.

If you're self-employed, add up your business expenses. "There are many deductions, items that are directly deductible against wages," Rosica said.

That can include things like the phone bill or paper for the printer — or for the room in your house where you conduct your business. But if you want to take that deduction, "you must regularly use part of your home exclusively for conducting business," the IRS says.

There are two ways to compute home office deductions — one a simplified method of $5 per square foot for up to 300 square feet, and the other based on the actual costs of using the home office.

The "EY Tax Guide 2017" lists 50 of the deductions that people are most likely to overlook.

If you took out a new mortgage or refinanced an existing one and paid points, those may be deductible, but they have to be amortized over the life of the loan. If you suffered a major uninsured loss, that may qualify as well.

Contact lenses, eyeglasses and hearing aids qualify as medical deductions. So do breast pumps and lactation supplies and contraceptives, if bought with a prescription. The cost of travel to get medical care also may be deductible. But you can only deduct medical expenses that exceed 10 percent of your adjusted gross income — or 7.5 percent if you are 65 or older.

However, the guide cautions, "the IRS has ruled that the cost of marijuana or any other federally controlled substance, even if recommended by a physician in a state whose laws permit such purchase and use, is not deductible."

Trump has not released his tax returns. But The New York Times reported last year that he claimed more than $900 million in losses in 1995, enabling him to pay nothing in taxes for as many as 18 years.

Asked during a presidential debate in October whether he used the loss to avoid paying taxes, he said, "Of course I do."

The Tax Policy Center estimates that about 44.5 percent of taxpayers will pay no income taxes for 2016.

"Just because people don't pay federal income tax doesn't mean they don't pay any tax," center fellow Roberton C. Williams wrote on its website. "In fact, nearly everyone pays something. Three-fifths of those who don't owe income tax work, and thus pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes. And almost everyone pays state and local sales taxes, excise taxes or some other levy."

Penalties for non-payment of taxes can add up.

There are penalties for failing to file your tax return and failing to pay your taxes.

The IRS advises people to file their tax returns even if they can't afford to pay what's due. The agency will work with taxpayers to set up installment plans if they are unable to afford the tax bill all at once.

"In most cases," the IRS says, "the failure to-to-file penalty is 10 times more than the failure-to-pay penalty."