Touted as the most significant update to the Internal Revenue Code in decades, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 (TCJA) did indeed introduce several noteworthy changes, including the new 20% qualified business income owners of (some) pass-through entities, a (much) lower corporate tax rate, a (much) higher estate tax exemption, lower individual tax rates for the vast majority of taxpayers, and a slightly higher total standard deduction (which combined both the existing individual standard deduction and the per household personal exemption). Ironically, though, while the TCJA legislation largely accomplished its objective of simplifying the process of filing taxes, it did so largely by making it a lot harder for households to itemize deductions at all going forward!
As while the new standard deduction isn’t that much higher than the combined prior standard deduction and personal exemption, the threshold for itemizing deductions in the first place is significantly higher than it was before, simply because the personal exemption wasn’t part of the equation when calculating the prior deduction threshold. Moreover, the TCJA also either eliminated completely or curtailed many of the most popular itemized deductions that got people over the hurdle to itemize in the first place, including moving expenses, many miscellaneous itemized deductions, and unreimbursed employee expenses (to name just a few). The end result: the number of households eligible to itemize deductions at all is anticipated to fall from approximately 30% of US households to “only” 10%.
Regardless, despite the upheaval, itemizing deductions is still a viable strategy to reduce overall tax obligations, and there are still six core deductions available to taxpayers, including: medical expenses (to the extent that they exceed 10% of Adjusted Gross Income – up from 7.5% in 2018); taxes paid to other governmental entities (both state or local municipality taxes as well as foreign governments, but with a $10,000 maximum deduction limit… regardless of filing status!); at least some types of interest paid (for not only mortgage interest – up to a $750,000 principal limit – but for investment purposes as well); charitable giving (but with limits); casualty and theft losses (but, for individuals, only if they were attributable to a Federally declared disaster); and other (miscellaneous-but-not-subject-to-the-2%-of-AGI-floor) deductions (such as gambling losses and Ponzi scheme losses, among others).
It’s important, meanwhile, to note that most of the still-available itemized deductions simply don’t occur regularly, and there are even fewer large enough to get taxpayers close enough to the new standard deduction threshold to make itemizing “worth it” on a recurring basis. Those items include big mortgages (particularly when mortgage rates are still at historically low levels), large ongoing charitable deductions (even though the deduction amount will necessarily be much less than the amount given), big state and local tax deductions (at least for individuals, where the $10,000 SALT cap gets them close to a standard deduction that is “only” $12,000), high margin investing (since interest paid on investments is deductible… as long as the returns on the investments are taxable in the first place), big long-term care events (which, while undesirable, can require large ongoing medical expenses), and significant stretch-IRAs that are eligible for the Income in Respect of a Decedent (IRD) deduction (to the extent that the IRA was inherited from someone who actually had to pay Federal estate taxes).
While few households will be able to meet the standard deduction threshold every year using just those big-ticket items, though, it is feasible (and perhaps even much more likely) that taxpayers will be able to itemize on an intermittent basis, by combining a few (or several) additional deductions on top of other (lower-but-recurring) deductions. For instance, a taxpayer might combine ongoing mortgage interest, property taxes, and state income taxes with a large charitable contribution to push past the standard deduction threshold in order to take advantage of additional tax benefits.
Ultimately, the key point to realize is that the combination of a higher Standard Deduction threshold and the curtailment of itemized deductions, makes it much harder to itemize than it once was (if only because the new standard deduction provided a more substantive and generous tax benefit in the first place). Yet while fewer households are able to itemize each and every year, some may still be able to do so, either on an ongoing basis, or at least intermittently by stacking infrequent clusters of additional deductions on top of recurring items that typically aren’t large enough to matter from a tax planning perspective. Which is important, because at the margin it’s still valuable to identify and plan for the (few) years where itemized deductions will still be available, as those are the years when there’s the most tax benefit to stacking any other possible “add-on” deductions on top for more tax savings!