Glossary of Terms

401(k) plan

An employer-sponsored retirement savings plan through which employees divert part of their salary to a tax-deferred investment account. Salary put in the plan is not taxed until it is later withdrawn, presumably in retirement. Employers often match part or all of the employee’s deposits. Penalties usually apply to withdrawals before age 55, although most plans allow employees to borrow limited amounts tax- and penalty-free from their accounts. See also Roth 401(k).


Accelerated depreciation

For most business property, except real estate, the law allows you to depreciate the cost at a rate faster than would be allowed under straight-line depreciation (see definition below.) For example, automobiles and computers are assumed to have a five-year life for tax purposes. With straight-line depreciation you would be permitted to write off 20 percent of the cost each year; the accelerated method generally lets you deduct 20 percent of the business cost the first year, 32 percent the second, 19.2 percent the third, 11.52 percent in years four and five, and the remaining 5.8 percent in the sixth year. It takes six years to fully depreciate the property, thanks to the “midyear” convention, which basically assumes that business assets are put into service in the middle of the year.

Acquisition indebtedness

This is the technical term that Congress uses for what most of us call home mortgage debt, on which the qualifying interest is deductible. To qualify, the debt must be used to buy, build or improve your principal residence or second home and must be secured by the property.

For tax years before 2018, the interest paid on up to $1 million of acquisition indebtedness is deductible if you itemize deductions. The interest on an additional $100,000 of debt can be deductible if certain requirements are met.

Beginning in 2018, deductible interest for new loans is limited to principal amounts of $750,000. Loans originated prior to 12/16/2017 or under a binding contract that closes prior to 4/1/2018 remain under the old rules for tax years prior to 2018.

Active participation

The level of involvement that real estate owners must meet to qualify to deduct up to $25,000 of passive losses from rental real estate. Failure to pass this test could make such losses nondeductible under passive-loss rules. (see passive loss rules below.)

Additional child tax credit

You may qualify for this credit if the regular child credit more than wipes out your tax liability. This additional credit can trigger a refund check from the IRS even if you don’t owe any tax.

Adjusted basis

Your basis in property is the starting point for determining whether you have a gain or loss when you sell it. (This is sometimes referred to as cost basis, tax basis or simply, basis.) The basis generally starts out as what you pay for the property, although special rules apply to assets you inherit or receive as a gift. The basis can be adjusted while you own property. When you buy rental property, for example, the basis begins at what you pay for the place, including certain buying expenses, and it is adjusted upward by the cost of permanent improvements. The basis is reduced by the amount of any depreciation you are allowed to deduct while you own the property. You use your adjusted basis to figure the gain or loss on the sale.

Adjusted Gross Income (AGI)

This is your income from all taxable sources, minus certain adjustments, and is the key to determining your eligibility for certain tax benefits and the phase-out of your eligibility for others. Adjusted Gross Income is also the amount from which deductions (the standard deduction or itemized deductions) and personal and dependent exemptions are deducted to arrive at the amount of taxable income that will actually be taxed. The adjustments—sometimes called above-the-line deductions because you can claim them whether or not you itemize deductions—include (among other things) deductible contributions to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), SIMPLE and Keogh plans, contributions to Health Savings Accounts (HSAs), job-related moving expenses, any penalty paid on early withdrawal of savings, the deduction for 50 percent of the self-employment tax paid by self-employed taxpayers, alimony payments, up to $2,500 of interest on higher education loans and certain qualifying college costs.

Adoption credit

This credit effectively refunds to you part of what you pay to adopt a qualifying child. An eligible child is generally one under age 18 or one who is physically or mentally incapable of caring for him or herself. If you adopt a special-needs child, you may be eligible for a credit that exceeds your actual costs. The right to the credit phases out as AGI rises.


See Taxpayer advocate.


Qualifying payments to an ex-spouse. For agreements entered into prior to 2019 these amounts can be deducted as adjustments to income whether or not you itemize and the recipient must include the payments in his or her taxable income. For agreements entered into after 2018, alimony payments are not a deduction adjustment for the paying ex-spouse, nor are they taxable income for the recipient.

Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT)

A special tax designed primarily to prevent the wealthy from using so many legal tax breaks that their regular tax bill is reduced to little or nothing. In recent years, it has hit more and more taxpayers who live in high-tax states, have many children or exercise incentive stock options and will increasingly hit taxpayers who do not consider themselves rich. The AMT ignores certain tax benefits allowed by the regular rules and applies special rates—26 percent and 28 percent—to a larger amount of income than is hit by the regular tax.

Amended return

A revised tax return, filed on Form 1040X, to correct an error on a return filed during the previous three years. An amended return can result in owing extra tax or getting a refund, depending on the mistake you correct.


As if you didn’t know, this is a review of your tax return by the IRS, during which you are asked to prove that you have correctly reported your income and deductions. Most audits are done by mail and involve specific issues, not the entire return.

Automobile, business use

The cost of driving your car on business can be deducted as a business or employee expense. You can deduct actual costs or use the standardized mileage rate published by the IRS, plus what you spend for parking and tolls while driving on business.

Automobile, donating to charity

Strict rules control your charitable deduction of a donated vehicle. In most cases, your deduction is limited to the amount the charity gets for the car when it sells it. The charity should give you this information within 30 days of the sale. Without it, the maximum deduction you’ll be able to claim for the vehicle donation is $500.

Automobile, driving for charity

The cost of using your car while doing charitable work is deductible. For 2019, you can deduct 14 cents per mile you drove while performing services for a charity. You can also deduct what you pay for parking and tolls.


Bargain sale to charity

Selling property to a charity for less than the property’s actually worth. Depending on the circumstances, this could result in a tax deduction or extra taxable income.


See Adjusted basis.

Below-market-rate loans

If you make an interest-free or bargain-rate loan to a friend or relative, you may be required to include in your taxable income some of the interest the IRS believes you should have charged.


A person is considered legally blind for purposes of qualifying for a larger standard deduction if:

He or she is totally blind.

He or she can’t see above 20/200 in the better eye with glasses or contact lenses.

His or her field of vision is 20 degrees or less.

Bond premium

The amount over face value that you pay to buy a bond paying higher than current market rates. With taxable bonds, a portion of the premium can be deducted each year that you own the securities.

Bonus Depreciation

Bonus depreciation is specified in the tax law and allows for taking more depreciation sooner than is generally permitted under ordinary depreciation rules. Bonus depreciation has been changed for qualified assets acquired and placed in service after September 27, 2017. The old rules of 50% bonus depreciation still apply for qualified assets acquired before September 28, 2017. These assets had to be purchased new, not used. The new rules allow for 100% bonus “expensing” of assets that are new or used. The percentage of bonus depreciation phases down in 2023 to 80%, 2024 to 60%, 2025 to 40%, and 2026 to 20%. After 2026 there is no further bonus depreciation. This bonus “expensing” should not be confused with expensing under Code Section 179 which has entirely separate rules, see “expensing”.

This 100% expensing is also available for certain productions (qualified film, television, and live staged performances) and certain fruit or nuts planted or grafted after September 27, 2017.

50% bonus first year depreciation can be elected over the 100% expensing for the first tax year ending after September 27, 2017.

Burden of proof

The responsibility of the taxpayer to prove that his or her tax return is accurate, rather than the IRS having to provide convincing evidence that it is inaccurate. Although Congress has shifted the burden of proof to the IRS in certain tax disputes, don’t throw away your records. The change will have no effect on the vast majority of taxpayers. The burden shifts only if a case gets to court—which happens very rarely—and then only if the taxpayer has complied with all record-keeping requirements and has cooperated with IRS requests for information. In almost all cases, the burden of proof remains on your shoulders.


Cancelled debt

Generally, when a debt is cancelled or forgiven, the borrower who benefits is considered to have received taxable income equal to the amount of the cancelled debt. There are exceptions. For example, some student loans contain agreements that debt will be forgiven if the borrower works for a certain period of time in a certain profession. And, up to $2 million of debt forgiven on a mortgage on a principal residence—in a foreclosure, for example, or short sale—can also be tax-free but only through Dec 31, 2017. However, this can apply to debt that is discharged in 2018 provided that there was a written agreement entered into in 2017. Also, forgiven debt is not taxable to the extent the borrower is insolvent (that is, whose liabilities exceed his or her assets) or when the debt is waived by a bankruptcy court. Other provisions grant tax-free treatment for cancelled debts in specific circumstances.

Capital expenditure

The cost of a permanent improvement to property. Such expenses, such as adding central air conditioning or an addition to your home, increase the property’s adjusted tax basis.

Capital gain

The profit from the sale of such property as stocks, mutual-fund shares and real estate. Gains from the sale of assets owned for 12 months or less are “short-term capital gains” and are taxed in your top tax bracket, just like salary. For most assets owned more than 12 months, profits are considered “long-term capital gains” and are taxed at 0, 15, or 20 percent. Taxpayers who otherwise fall in the 10 percent or 15 percent bracket get an even better deal. Their rate on long-term gains is 0% percent. The special rates for long-term gains do not, however, apply to all gains from investment real estate. To the extent that gain results from depreciation (depreciation deductions reduce your basis in the property and therefore increase gain dollar for dollar upon sale), a 25 percent maximum rate applies (unless you are in the 10 percent or 12 percent bracket, in which case that rate applies) to this “recaptured” depreciation. Also, long term-gains from the sale of collectibles are taxed at a maximum rate of 28 percent.

Capital loss

The loss from the sale of assets such as stocks, bonds, mutual funds and real estate. Such losses are first used to offset capital gains and then up to $3,000 of excess losses can be deducted against other income, such as your salary. Long- and short-term losses (distinguished by whether the property was held for more than one year or a shorter period of time) are first used to offset gains of a similar nature. Any excess first offsets the other kind of gain, then other types of income.

Capital-loss carryover

Capital losses can be used to offset capital gains, and up to $3,000 of any net capital loss can be deducted against other income, such as your salary or bank account interest. Net capital losses not currently deductible because of the $3,000 limit can be carried over to future years.

Casualty loss

Damage that results from a sudden or unusual event.

Charitable contribution

A gift of cash or property to a qualified charity for which a tax deduction is allowed. You must have either a receipt or a bank record (such as a cancelled check) to back up any donation of cash, regardless of the amount. Donations of $250 or more must have an acknowledgement from the charity.

Charitable carryovers

Generally, your deduction for donations to charity in one year cannot exceed 50% of your adjusted gross income for that year (30% in the case of donations of appreciated assets and contributions to private foundations). You can carry over any excess for the following five tax years. The carryover expires, however, should you pass away before it is used up. Your heirs cannot claim it. If you can’t take your full charitable contribution deduction this year, TurboTax will automatically carry over the remainder to next year’s return.

Charitable mileage

See Standard mileage rate.

Child credit

This credit is $1,000 for 2017 and $2,000 for 2018 and later years, for each child under age 17 you claim as a dependent on your return. The right to this credit is phased out as adjusted gross income rises.

Child- and dependent-care credit

Not to be confused with the child credit, this one offsets part of the cost of paying for care for a child under the age of 13 or disabled dependent while you work. The credit—which ranges from 20 percent to 35 percent depending on your income—can be applied to as much as $3,000 of qualifying expenses if you pay for the care of one qualifying child, or up to $6,000 if you pay for the care of two or more.

Child support

Payments made under a divorce or separation agreement for the support of a child. The payments are neither deductible by the person who pays them, nor considered taxable income to the person who receives the money.

College credits

The American Opportunity credit can be worth up to $2,500 for each qualifying student and is available for the first four years of vocational school or college. The Lifetime Learning credit can be worth up to $2,000 per year for additional schooling. You can claim an American Opportunity credit for qualifying expenses of each qualifying student (including yourself, your spouse or your dependent child). For example, having three children in college at the same time could earn you $7,500 worth of credits. However, only one Lifetime Learning credit can be claimed each year, for a maximum credit of $2,000 per tax return. The right to claim the American Opportunity credit disappears as adjusted gross income rises from $80,000 to $90,000 for a single taxpayer ($160,000 to $180,000 on a joint return). The right to claim the Lifetime Learning credit disappears as 2019 adjusted gross income rises from $58,000 to $68,000 for a single taxpayer ($116,000 to $136,000 on a joint return).

College expense deduction

This deduction ended on December 31, 2017. Qualifying taxpayers can deduct up to $4,000 of college expenses if their adjusted gross income is under $65,000 on a single return or $130,000 on a joint return. This break was available whether or not you itemize deductions, but is not available on the return of a student who is claimed as a dependent on his or her parent’s return. A write-off of up to $2,000 was allowed for qualifying taxpayers whose AGI falls between $65,000 and $80,000 on a single return, and between $130,000 and $160,000 on a joint return. You could not claim the deduction in the same year you claim an American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning credit for the same student. But because the income phase-out range for this deduction is higher than for the Lifetime Learning credit, some taxpayers whose income is too high to benefit from the Lifetime Learning credit will benefit from this write-off.

Combat pay

Pay received by members of the U.S. Armed Forces and support personnel in combat zones, including peace-keeping efforts. Military pay received by enlisted personnel serving in combat or designated peace-keeping efforts is tax-free. Officer pay is tax-free up to the maximum pay for enlisted personnel (plus imminent danger/ hostile fire pay), an amount that increases each year. Although tax-free, combat pay may now be counted as compensation when determining whether the taxpayer can contribute to an IRA or Roth IRA.

Conservation easements

If you donated an easement to a conservation group or a state or local government to restrict development of your property, you can deduct the resulting decline-in- value of your property.

Constructive receipt

A concept of tax law that taxes income at the time you could have received it, even if you don’t actually have it. A paycheck you could pick up in December is considered constructively received and taxed in that year, even if don’t get and cash the check until the following January. Also, interest paid on a savings account is considered constructively received and taxable in the year it is credited to your account, whether or not you withdraw the money.

Consumer interest

See Personal interest.

Coverdell education savings account

A Coverdell ESA allows you to put up to $2,000 a year in a special account that will be used to pay a student’s school bills. There’s no deduction for contributions but if the money is used to pay qualifying expenses, withdrawals, including accumulated income, are tax-free. The $2,000 cap is the limit on how much can be set aside for any student in one year, regardless of how many people contribute. In addition to being used for college expenses, ESA funds can also be spent for primary and high school bills. Even the cost of a computer is a qualifying expense.

Coverdell ESA

See Coverdell education savings account.

Credit for qualified retirement savings contributions

See Retirement credit.



If you receive a settlement in a damage suit that includes money for future medical expenses, the amount is not taxable. But you can’t deduct those future medical expenses covered by the amount of the award allocated to medical care as an itemized deduction. Enter medical expenses that exceed the award in Deductions and Credits under Medical.


Write-offs you are permitted to subtract from your gross income to calculate your taxable income. All taxpayers may claim a standard deduction, which is determined by the IRS. If your qualifying expenses exceed your standard deduction, you may claim the higher amount by itemizing your deductions. Although no records are needed to back up your right to the standard deduction, you must maintain records of qualifying expenditures if you itemize. For higher income taxpayers, the amount of their otherwise allowable itemized deductions will be reduced when adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds a threshold amount. The reduction and threshold amounts can vary each year.


Someone you support and for whom you can claim a dependent on your tax return. Generally, for each dependent you claim, you are eligible for a dependent credit that directly reduces your tax. Other tax breaks (such as the child tax credit) may also be available for dependents.


A deduction to reflect the gradual loss of value of business property as it wears out. The law assigns a tax life to various types of property, and your basis in such property is deducted over that period of time. See also Accelerated Depreciation.

Direct transfer

A method to move funds from one Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or Keogh plan to another. You can also use this method to move money from a company retirement plan such as a 401(k) to an IRA. With a direct transfer, you order one sponsor to transfer the money directly to your new IRA; you do not take possession of the funds. There is no limit on the number of times you can move your money via direct transfer. However, if you take possession of the funds and personally deposit them in the new IRA, the switch is considered a rollover. You can use the rollover method only once each year for each IRA account you own. The direct transfer method must be used to move funds from a company retirement plan to an IRA, or else 20 percent of the money withdrawn from the company plan will be withheld for the IRS, even if no taxes are due.


Earned income

Compensation, such as salary, commissions and tips, you receive for your personal services. This is distinguished from “unearned” income such as interest, dividends and capital gains.

Earned income credit

If your adjusted gross income is below a certain amount, you may be able to claim the earned income credit, which might wipe out your income tax bill and even result in a refund of any leftover credit. The exact credit amount depends on your income level, as well as how many qualifying children you have.

Education interest

Interest on college loans can be deducted as an adjustment to income, so you get a benefit even if you claim the standard deduction rather than itemizing deductions on your return. To qualify for the write off, the debt had to be incurred to pay higher education expenses for you, your spouse or your dependent. Up to $2,500 of such interest can be deducted, but this tax-saver—like so many others—is phased out at higher income levels.

Education savings account

See Coverdell education savings account.

Educator expenses

This deduction is allowed for kindergarten through 12th grade teachers for what they spend for classroom supplies. This is an “adjustment to income,” which means you get this benefit even if you claim the standard deduction rather than itemizing.

Elderly or disabled credit

This credit is for low-income taxpayers age 65 or older at the end of the year, or those who are retired on permanent and total disability. Relatively few taxpayers qualify for this credit.

Electronic filing

The fastest way to get your tax return (or a request for an extension of time to file) to the IRS (and state revenue office).

Energy credits

Residential Energy Efficient Property Credit: This tax credit helps taxpayers pay for qualified residential alternative energy equipment, such as solar hot water heaters, solar electricity equipment The credit, which runs through 2021, is 30 percent of the cost of qualified property through 2019, 26 percent in 2020, and 22 percent in 2021. There is no cap on the amount of credit available. Generally, you may include labor costs when figuring the credit and you can carry forward any unused portions of this credit. Qualifying equipment must have been installed on or in connection with your home located in the United States; fuel cell property qualifies only when installed on or in connection with your main home located in the United States.

Enrolled agent

A tax preparer who, by virtue of passing a tough IRS test or prior IRS work experience, can represent clients at IRS audits and appeals.

Estate tax

For 2019 the exemption amount for estates is $11,400,000, with a maximum estate tax of 40%.

Estimated tax

If you have income that’s not subject to withholding, such as investment or self-employment income, you may have to make quarterly payments of the estimated amount needed to cover your expected tax liability for the year.

Excess Social Security tax withheld

If you hold more than one job during the year—either at the same time or successively—too much Social Security could be withheld from your pay. This is because each employer is required to withhold the tax, but no taxpayer has to pay the full tax on more than the annual limits. If wages from two jobs pushes you over the limit, too much tax will be withheld. You get a credit for the excess when you file your tax return for the year.


For tax years prior to 2018, you can claim a personal exemption for yourself. On joint returns a personal exemption is claimed for each spouse. You also get an exemption for each dependent you claim on your return. Each exemption reduces taxable income by a standard amount, which is partially phased out at higher income levels. Beginning with tax year 2018, exemptions are no longer a deduction for taxable income.


Also known as the Section 179 deduction, expensing lets you treat a certain amount of the expenditures that normally would be depreciated over a number of years as current business expenses to be deducted immediately.



See Scholarships and fellowships.


The Federal Insurance Contribution Act tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare is usually split 50/50 between employers and employees.

Filing status

Your status determines the size of your standard deduction and the tax-rates that apply to your income. For tax purposes, you are considered single, married filing jointly, married filing separately, head of household or qualifying widow or widower.

First-time homebuyer credit

See Homebuyer credit.

Flexible spending account

See Reimbursement account.

Forgiven debt

See Cancelled debt.


Gift tax

To prevent people from avoiding the estate tax by giving their property away, the law imposes a gift tax. In 2019, you can give up to $15,000 yearly to each of as many people you want without worrying about this tax. Any part of the credit used to offset taxable gifts will not be available to reduce the estate tax. When the gift tax is owed, it is owed by the giver, not the recipient.

Gross income

All of your income from taxable sources, before subtracting any adjustments, deductions or exemptions.


Head of household

A filing status with lower tax rates for unmarried or some married persons considered unmarried (for purposes of this filing status) who pay more than half the cost of maintaining a home, generally, for themselves and a qualifying person, for more than half the tax year.

Health Savings Account (HSA)

HSAs allow Americans under age 65 to make tax-deductible contributions to a special account tied to a high-deductible health insurance policy. Earnings inside the HSA are tax-deferred (just like in an IRA). To be eligible to contribute to an HSA, you must have a qualified high-deductible insurance policy. Money from the HSA can be used tax- and penalty-free to pay the insurance policy deductible, co-payments and any other qualifying expenses. Money left in the account at the end of a year can be rolled over to the next year. Nonqualifying withdrawals of earnings before age 65 are taxed and a 10 percent penalty is imposed. After you reach age 65, contributions to the HSA must cease and non-qualifying withdrawals are taxed but not penalized.

Highly-paid individuals

Special anti-discrimination rules can limit retirement plan contributions for highly-paid individuals, defined as anyone making more than $125,000 in 2019 or anyone who is a 5% owner of a company which offers the retirement plan in question. If lower-paid employees do not contribute to a 401(k) plan in sufficient numbers, for example, higher-paid employees can have part of their contributions returned at year-end, meaning it will be treated as taxable compensation.

Hobby-loss rule

One requirement for deducting business losses is that you show you are trying to make a profit. The law presumes you’re in business for profit if you report a taxable profit for three years out of any five-year period (or two out of seven years if you’re into breeding, showing or racing horses). Otherwise, your activity is assumed to be a hobby, unless you can prove otherwise. The distinction is important because if the expenses of a hobby exceed the income, the difference is considered a personal expense, not a tax-deductible loss.

Holding period

The period of time you own an asset for purposes of determining whether profit or loss on its sale is a short- or long-term capital gain or loss. Sales of assets owned one year or less produce short-term results. The sale of assets owned more than 12 months produces long-term results. The holding period begins on the day after you purchase an asset and ends on the day you sell it. If you buy on January 4, for example, your holding period begins January 5. If you sell the following January 4, you have owned the asset for exactly one year, and are stuck with short-term treatment. To be eligible for the gentler long-term tax treatment, you’d need to hold on until January 5, so that you have owned the asset for more than one year. See Capital gain.

Homebuyer credit

This credit was available if you closed on the purchase of a U.S. principal residence between April 9, 2008 and April 30, 2010. (If a home is under contract on April 30, the deadline to close is extended to June 30, 2010.) The maximum credit for 2008 purchases is the lesser of $7,500 or 10% of the home purchase price; the maximum credit for purchases in 2009 and 2010 is the lesser of $8,000 or 10% of the purchase price (the credit amount is halved for a buyer who uses married filing separate status). Maximum credits are allowed to individuals who did not own a U.S. principal residence within the three-year period ending on the purchase date. For purchases after November 6, 2009, a reduced credit equal to the lesser of $6,500 or 10% of the purchase price is allowed to an individual who owned the same U.S. principal residence for a period of five consecutive years during the eight-year period ending on the purchase date (the credit amount is halved for a buyer who uses married filing separate status). The credit is phased out at higher income levels (stricter phase-out ranges apply to purchases on or before November 6, 2009). For purchases after that date, the credit is only allowed if the price of the new principal residence doesn’t exceed $800,000. Credits for 2008 purchases generally must be paid back over 15 years, starting in 2010. Credits for 2009 and 2010 purchases generally won’t have to be paid back. Credits for 2009 purchases can be claimed on 2008 returns, and credits for 2010 purchases can be claimed on 2009 returns. The credit is fully refundable, which means it can be used to offset the buyer’s regular tax and alternative minimum tax liabilities with any leftover credit amount refunded to the buyer in cash. Certain liberalized rules apply to military service members.

Home equity loans

Debt secured by your principal residence or second home—such as a second mortgage or home equity line of credit—that is not used to buy, build or substantially improve the property. Although interest on most personal loans is not deductible, interest on up to $100,000 of home equity debt is an exception for tax years prior to 2018. Beginning in 2018, home equity interest is no longer deductible unless it is used to buy, build, or improve your home.

Home office expenses

If you use part of your home regularly and exclusively as the principal place of your business or the place you meet with clients, patients or customers, you can qualify to deduct certain expenses that are otherwise nondeductible personal expenses. Examples include a portion of your utilities, homeowner’s insurance premiums and depreciation (if you own your home) or part of your rent (if you are a renter).

Home sale profit

Profit of up to $250,000 ($500,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly) is tax-free, if you owned and lived in the home for two of the five years leading up to the sale. This break can be used repeated times, but not more than once in any two year period. A surviving spouse is considered married (and eligible for a $500,000 exclusion) if a home is sold within two years of the death of his or her spouse.

Hope credit (now the American Opportunity credit)

See College credits.

Household employees

If someone works in your home—as a child care provider, for example, or housekeeper or gardener—as your employee (rather than as an independent contractor or an employee of a service company), you may be responsible for paying Social Security and Medicare taxes for the employee. This requirement is triggered in 2019 if you pay the employee $2,100 or more during the year. This is also sometimes called the “nanny tax.” (If you pay an employee $1,000 or more in any calendar quarter, you must pay federal unemployment tax.)


Imported drugs

The cost of prescription drugs imported from Canada or any other foreign country is not deductible.

Imputed interest

Interest you are considered to have earned—and therefore owe tax on—if you make a below-market-rate loan. The term is also used to refer to the interest income you must report on taxable zero-coupon bonds. Although the bonds pay no interest until maturity, you must report and pay tax on the interest as it accrues.

Incentive stock option

An option that allows an employee to purchase stock of the employer below current market price. For regular income tax purposes, the “spread” or “bargain element”—the difference between the price paid and market value of the stock—is not taxed when the option is exercised. Rather, it is taxed when the stock is sold. For alternative minimum tax purposes, however, the spread is taxed in the year the option is exercised.


To prevent inflation from eroding certain tax benefits—including standard deductions and exemption amounts and the beginning and end of each tax bracket—they are automatically adjusted annually for increases in the consumer price index.

Individual 401(k) plan

The 401(k) rules allow a self-employed person with no employees (other than his or her spouse) to use a 401(k) plan to sock away—and deduct—far more for his or her retirement than in the past. For 20169 self-employed individuals can contribute up to $56,000 to a solo 401(k). Those 50 and older can shelter up to an additional $6,000 by making extra “catch-up” contribution.

Individual retirement account (IRA)

A reference to an IRA without the moniker “Roth” in front of it is a reference to a traditional IRA, a tax-favored account designed to encourage saving for retirement. If your income is below a certain level or you are not covered by a retirement plan at work, deposits into a traditional IRA can be deducted. The maximum annual contribution for 2019—deductible or not—is $6,000 or 100 percent of the compensation earned during the year, whichever is less. Those who are age 50 or older at the end of the year can add an extra $1,000 “catch-up” contribution, bringing their annual limit to $7,000 for 2019. Also, spouses can contribute part of his other compensation to an IRA for a non-working spouse. The tax on all earnings inside the IRA is postponed until you withdraw the funds. In most cases there is a penalty for withdrawing funds before you reach age 59 1/2. The right to deduct contributions phases out at higher income levels for those covered by a retirement plan at work. See also Roth IRA.

Individual retirement arrangement

See Individual retirement account (IRA).

IRA payouts for first-time homebuyers

As a general rule, withdrawals from traditional IRA before age 59½ are hit with a 10% tax penalty. But the penalty is waived on up to $10,000 withdrawn to buy a first home for yourself, a child or grandchild, or your parents or grandparents.

IRA withdrawals for education

The typical 10% penalty for early (pre-age 59½) withdrawal from traditional IRAs is waived if the distributions is used to pay higher education expenses for yourself, your spouse, or a dependent. However, the payout is taxed.

Innocent-spouse rules

Tax rules designed to protect married taxpayers who file joint returns from being held responsible for taxes due to erroneous actions by their spouses—such as failing to report income or claiming unsubstantiated deductions. Basically, if you can show that you didn’t know and didn’t have reason to know about error that resulted in the underpayment of tax on the joint return, you can be relieved of responsibility for that underpayment. You have two years from the time the IRS begins trying to collect the underpayment to petition for innocent spouse relief.

Installment sale

With an installment sale you agree to have the purchaser pay you over a number of years, and you report the profit on the sale as you receive the money instead of all at once in the year of the sale.

Investment interest

Interest paid on loans used for investment purposes, such as to buy stock on margin. You can deduct this interest on Schedule A if you itemize, up to the amount of investment income (not including capital gains or dividends that qualify for the 0, 15, or 20 percent rates) you report.

Itemized deductions

See Deductions.


Job-hunting costs

The costs of looking for a new job in your same line of work are deductible for tax years prior to 2018. Qualifying expenses include the cost of want-ads, employment agency fees, printing and mailing resumes, and travel expenses such as transportation, lodging and 50% of food if your job hunting takes you away from home overnight. Beginning in 2018, these expenses are no longer deductible.

Job-related education

The cost of education that maintains or improves skills you use on the job, or that is required to maintain your job is deductible for tax years prior to 2018. Beginning in 2018, these expenses are no longer deductible. Education that qualifies you for a new trade or business, such as law school, is not eligible for this deduction, but may be eligible for the American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning tax credit.

Job-related move

See Moving expenses.

Jury duty pay repaid to employer

Jury fees you are required to turn over to your employer—in exchange for your salary continuing while you do your civic duty—are deductible. This will offset the jury fee income you are required to report if the money only passes through your hands.


Keogh plan

Also known as an H.R. 10 plan, this is a retirement plan for the self-employed. As much as 20 percent of your net earnings from self-employment income (up to $56,000 for 2019) can be deposited in a defined contribution Keogh. Contributions are tax deductible. There is no tax on the earnings until the money is withdrawn, and there are restrictions on tapping the account before age 59½.

Kiddie cards

A reference to the Social Security cards needed by any child you claim as a dependent on your tax return. The nine-digit identifying number shown on the card must be reported on the tax return of the parent who claims the child as a dependent. What if a child is born late in the year and you haven’t received a Social Security number by the time you’re ready to file? The IRS says you must delay filing, even if it means getting an extension to file past the April 15 deadline. If you claim a dependent and fail to include the number, the exemption will be rejected and your tax bill hiked accordingly.

Kiddie tax

The tax—at the parents’ higher tax rate—imposed on unearned income of children who are under age 19 at the end of the year and dependent students who are under age 24. For 2019, the kiddie tax can only apply to the child’s unearned income in excess of $2,200.


Lifetime learning credit

See College credits.

Like-kind exchange

The tax-free exchange of similar assets, such as real estate for real estate. The tax on profit accrued in the first property is deferred until the subsequent property is sold.

Limited partnerships

A partnership investment—in real estate and oil and gas, for example—that passes on both profits and losses to investors. By definition, limited partnerships are passive investments, subject to the passive-loss rules.

Listed property

“Listed property” is the term used for depreciable assets that Congress has put on a special list for special scrutiny by the IRS. Basically, this includes things Congress worries you might use for personal as well as business purposes—a car, computer, cellular telephone, boat, airplane and photographic and video equipment. (If a computer or photographic or video equipment is used exclusively at your regular place of business, however, it is not considered listed property.) There are special restrictions on the depreciation of listed property if business use does not exceed 50 percent.

Long-term care insurance premium

Premiums paid for long-term care insurance can be deducted as a medical expense. The maximum annual deduction is based on your age.

Long-term gain or loss

See Capital gain or Capital loss.

Lump-sum distribution

The payment within one year of the full amount of your interest in a pension or profit-sharing plan. To qualify as a lump-sum distribution—and for favorable tax treatment—other requirements must be met.

Luxury car rules

The restrictions that limit annual depreciation deductions for business automobiles that cost more than a certain amount.


Margin interest

See Investment interest

Marginal tax rate

The share of each extra dollar of income that will go to the IRS. It’s not necessarily the same as the rate in your top tax bracket because in many cases rising income squeezes the value of tax breaks, so that the extra income is effectively taxed more harshly than advertised. Knowing your marginal rate tells you how much of each additional dollar you make will go to the IRS and how much you’ll save for every dollar of deductions you claim.

Marital deduction

The tax law provision that generally allows any amount of property to go from one spouse to the other—via lifetime gifts or bequests—free of federal gift or estate taxes.

Market discount

The difference between what you pay for a bond and its higher face value. The tax treatment varies depending on whether the bond is taxable or tax-free and whether you redeem it at maturity or sell it before that time.

Master limited partnerships (MLP)

Similar to regular limited partnerships, but MLP shares are traded on the major exchanges, making for a much more liquid investment. Although limited-partnership losses are considered passive, income from an MLP is considered investment income rather than passive income. That means passive losses can’t be used to shelter MLP income.

Material participation

The test used to determine whether you are involved enough in a business to avoid the passive-loss rules. To be considered a material participant, you must be involved on a “regular, continuous and substantial basis.” One way to pass the test is to participate in the business for more than 500 hours during the year.

Medicare tax

The portion of the combined Social Security and Medicare tax—1.45 percent for employees and 2.9 percent for self-employed taxpayers—that pays for Medicare. Although the part of the tax that pays for Social Security stops at $132,900 in 2019, the Medicare portion of the tax applies to all wages and self-employment income, no matter how high.

Midmonth convention

The rule that treats certain kinds of depreciable property, including real estate, as though it were placed in service in the middle of the month it was first used.

Midquarter convention

In general, business property is depreciated under a midyear rule that allows half a year’s depreciation for the first year, whether you buy property in January or December. However, if you buy more than 40 percent of the business property you put into service for the year during the fourth quarter, the midquarter convention takes over. With it, you depreciate each piece of property as though it were placed into service in the middle of the calendar quarter in which it was purchased. You claim just six weeks’ worth of depreciation for property put in service during the final quarter, for example.

Mileage rate

See Standard mileage rate.

Mortgage interest

A term often used to refer to deductible interest paid on debt that qualifies as acquisition indebtedness or home equity debt.

For tax years before 2018, the interest paid on up to $1 million of acquisition indebtedness is deductible if you itemize deductions. The interest on an additional $100,000 of debt can be deductible if certain requirements are met.

Beginning n 2018, deductible interest for new loans is limited to principal amounts of $750,000. Loans originated prior to 12/16/2017 or under a binding contract that closes prior to 4/1/2018 remain under the old rules for tax years prior to 2018.

Moving expenses

For tax years prior to 2018, some of the costs of moving in connection with taking a new job are deductible. To qualify for the deduction, the new job must be at least 50 miles farther from your old home than your old job was. Deductible expenses include the cost of moving your household goods, as well as travel and lodging expenses for you and your family. If you moved to take your first job, the 50-mile test applies to the distance between your old home and your new job. You can take this deduction even if you claim the standard deduction rather than itemizing deductions on your return.

Beginning in 2018, moving expenses are no longer deductible unless for specific instances for members of the military.

Multiple-support agreement

An agreement under which two or more taxpayers, who together provide more than half the support for someone else, agree that one supporting person will claim the supported person as a dependent, and the other supporting persons will not.


Nanny tax

See Household employee.

Net Unrealized Appreciation (NUA)

NUA comes into play if you take a total payout from a company retirement plan that includes appreciated employer securities. Rather than make a tax-free rollover of the entire amount to an IRA, you can roll the stock into a taxable account and owe tax only on the stock’s value when you acquired the shares. The Net Unrealized Appreciation that accrued while the stock was inside the plan will not be taxed until you ultimately sell the stock. At that point, the profit can qualify for special long-term capital gain treatment. If you rolled the stock into an IRA, all appreciation would be taxed as ordinary income when withdrawn, at your top tax rate.

Nonbusiness bad debt

A bad debt not connected with your trade or business. An uncollectible loan to a friend or a deposit to a contractor who becomes insolvent are examples. You must be able to show that you tried to collect the debt. When those efforts are unsuccessful, a nonbusiness bad debt is deductible as a short-term capital loss in the year the debt becomes entirely worthless.

Noncash contributions

The full fair-market value of most assets that you donate to charity can be deducted if you have owned the asset for more than a year. The deduction for assets owned one year or less is limited to your tax basis, which is generally what you paid for the property. If you give property with a total value of more than $500, you’ll need to file Form 8283 and give details about the assets, including a description of them and their individual values. If their value is more than $5,000, you generally will need to attach an appraisal, unless you give listed securities. Note that if you donate used clothing or household items such as furniture, appliances, linens, or electronics, you can’t deduct the value of the items unless they are in excellent or good condition.

Nonqualified stock options

Options to purchase company stock that are granted to employees as compensation but do not meet restrictions necessary to qualify as incentive stock options. (See Incentive stock options.) There is no tax consequence when the options are granted but when employees exercise the options to purchase stock, the “spread” or “bargain element”—the difference between purchase price and the stock’s value—is taxed as additional compensation.


Out-of-pocket charitable contributions

Expenses you incur while working for a charity—from the cost of driving your car (generally 14 cents per mile) to the cost of stamps for a fundraiser—can be deducted as a charitable contribution.

Original Issue Discount (OID)

The amount by which the face value of a bond exceeds its issue price. Part of the discount on taxable bonds must be reported as taxable interest income each year that you own the securities.


Passive-loss rules

Passive activities are investments in which you do not materially participate. Losses from such investments can be used only to offset income from similarly passive investments. Passive losses generally can’t be deducted against other kinds of income, such as salary or income from interest, dividends or capital gains. Generally, all real estate and limited-partnership investments are considered passive activities, but there is an exception for real estate professionals and a limited exception for rental real estate in which non-professionals actively participate. Losses you can’t use because you have no passive income to offset can be carried over to future years.

Personal exemption

See Exemptions.

Personal interest

Basically, this is interest that doesn’t qualify as mortgage, business, student loan or investment interest. Included is interest you pay on credit cards, car loans, life insurance loans and any other personal borrowing not secured by your home. Personal interest cannot be deducted.


In connection with getting a home mortgage, each point is equal to 1 percent of the mortgage amount. Points paid on a mortgage to buy or improve your principal residence are generally fully-deductible in the year you pay them. You get to deduct the points even if you convince the seller to pay them for you, as long as you paid enough cash at closing—as a down payment, for example—to cover the points. Points paid to refinance the mortgage on a principal home or to buy any other property must be deducted over the life of the loan.

Preference items

Tax breaks allowed under the regular income tax but not under the Alternative Minimum Tax, including the deduction of state and local taxes and interest on home equity loans. One that is becoming more and more important to more and more taxpayers is the “spread” between the exercise price and the value of stock purchased with incentive stock options. Although that amount is not taxed under the regular tax, it is a preference item subject to tax if you’re hit by the AMT.

Prizes and awards

The value of a prize or award is generally taxable, so if you hit the lotto, Uncle Sam is a winner, too. One exception is that certain noncash employee awards—the proverbial gold watch, for example—can be tax-free.

Premature distribution

Withdrawals from a company retirement plan which are subject to a 10 percent penalty (in most cases) if you’re under age 55 in the year you leave the job or from a traditional IRA if you’re under age 59½.

Property taxes

See Real estate taxes.


Qualified plan

An employee benefit plan—such as a pension or profit-sharing plan—that meets IRS requirements designed to protect employees’ interests.


Real estate taxes

Real estate taxes you pay are deductible. For tax years prior to 2018, you can deduct the state and local property taxes you paid on any number of personal residences or other real property you own. Beginning in 2018, deductions for state and local taxes, including real estate taxes, are limited to $10,000 per year.

Recapture of depreciation

When you depreciate investment real estate, your tax basis declines. To the extent that profit when you sell is due to the reduced basis (rather than appreciation), the law recaptures part of the depreciation tax break by taxing that part of your profit up to 25 percent, rather than the regular top 15 percent rate for long-term capital gains.

Reimbursement account

A fringe benefit, sometimes called a flexible spending account or salary reduction plan that allows an employee to divert some of his or her salary to a special account that is used to reimburse the employee for medical or child care expenses. Funds channeled through the account escape federal income and Social Security taxes and state income taxes as well.

Retirement saver’s credit

This credit is worth as much as 50 percent of up to $2,000 contributed to an IRA, 401(k) or other retirement plan, for a maximum credit amount of $1,000 ($2,000 if filing jointly). The credit is designed to encourage lower-income workers to save for their retirement. The credit is phased out as income rises. Taxpayers under age 18 and those claimed as dependents on their parents’ returns are not eligible, regardless of their income.


The tax-free transfer of funds from one individual retirement account (IRA) to another or from a company plan to an IRA. If you take possession of the funds, the money must be deposited in the new IRA within 60 days. Beware that when the rollover method is used to move money from a company plan to an IRA, 20 percent of the amount will be withheld for the IRS, even though the rollover is tax-free if the money is in the IRA within 60 days. To avoid this automatic withholding, use the direct transfer method to move money from a company plan to an IRA. See Direct transfer.

Roth 401(k)

Employers are now allowed to add a Roth option to 401(k) plans to allow employees to invest after-tax money with the promise of tax-free withdrawals in retirement. With the regular 401(k), you invest pre-tax money but have to pay tax on all withdrawals in retirement. If your firm offers a matching contribution, it must go into the traditional 401(k), and you will be taxed on distributions from that part of the plan. The same dollar limits apply to Roth 401(k)s as to regular plans. The maximum employee contribution for 2018 is $19,000. Plus, you can make an extra $6,000 “catch-up” contribution if you are age 50 or older. You can choose to divert part of your pay to each kind of 401(k) account, but your combined contributions can’t exceed the preceding limits.

Roth IRA

The back-loaded IRA is named after a chief supporter—the late Senator William Roth of Delaware. It’s called back-loaded because the tax benefits come at the end of the line. Contributions are not deductible, but all withdrawals are tax-free, as long as they come after you reach age 59½ and at least five years after January 1st of the year in which you opened up your first Roth account. Contribution limits are the same as for traditional IRAs: $6,000 in 2019, with an extra $1,000 catch-up contribution allowed for those age 50 and older. But there’s a catch: If your income is too high, you can’t contribute to a Roth IRA.

You can also roll over funds from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA—so that all future earnings would be tax-free rather than simply tax-deferred. This is called a Roth IRA conversion. But to do so, you have to pay tax on the money you move from the old IRA to the Roth. Starting in 2010, there is no income restriction on Roth IRA conversions (for earlier years, Roth conversions are only allowed if AGI is $100,000 or less).


S corporation

Named after the subchapter of the tax law that authorizes it, an S corporation generally pays no tax because profits and losses are passed on and taxed to the shareholders.

Sales taxes

State and local general sales taxes you pay may be deductible if you itemize. But you must choose between deduction sales taxes or deducting city and state income taxes. If you live in a state that does not impose an income tax, claim the sales tax deduction. You don’t need to keep all your receipts, either. The IRS has a handy table with estimates based on your income, family size and where you live. You can add to the table amount sales taxes paid on cars, boats, aircraft and other big ticket items. Purchase of such items could lead some taxpayers in income-tax states to pay more sales tax than income tax. You can choose whichever deduction is most valuable to you.

Saver’s credit

See Retirement saver’s credit.

Salary reduction plan

See Reimbursement account.

Scholarships and fellowships

Scholarships and fellowships received by degree candidates to cover tuition, fees, books and supplies are generally tax-free. But amounts for room and board are taxable.

Section 179 deduction

See Expensing.


The Self Employment Contributions Act tax that pays for Social Security and Medicare for self-employed individuals. For 2019, the self-employment tax rate is 15.3 percent on the first $132,900 of self-employment income and 2.9 percent on all amounts over this amount.

Self-employed health insurance premiums

Premiums paid by a self-employed person for coverage for yourself, your spouse or dependents can be deductible, even if you don’t itemize deductions.


A Simplified Employee Pension (SEP) is a tax-favored retirement plan mainly for self-employed taxpayers. Contributions to the plan are tax deductible. The maximum contribution for 2019 is the smaller of 20% of net earnings from self-employment or $56,000. Contributions for the 2019 tax year are due by April 15, 2020, but you can extend the contribution deadline to October 15, 2020 if you extend the due date of your return.

Short sale

The sale of borrowed stock, usually with the hope that the stock price will fall. If it does, the investor profits by repaying the loan with shares purchased at the lower price. If the stock price increases, the investor loses and has to repay the loan with shares that cost more than those sold. As far as the IRS is concerned, the transaction doesn’t count for tax purposes until the investor delivers stock to the lender to close the sale.

Short-term gains and losses

See Capital gain or Capital loss.


The Savings Incentive Match Plan for Employees (SIMPLE) is a retirement plan that can be offered by companies with 100 or fewer employees. A key consideration is that the employer generally must match employee contributions up to 3 percent or contribute 2 percent of pay for each employee, whether or not they contribute on their own. The rules are simpler than for other tax-qualified retirement plans. Congress hopes that this will encourage smaller employers to establish plans. For 2019, a self-employed person with no employees could open a SIMPLE and contribute up to $13,000 of self-employment earnings (plus a $3,000 catch-up contribution if he or she is age 50 or older by the end of the year).

Social Security Tax

See FICA and SECA.

Social Security Tax, excess withheld

If you hold more than one job during the year—either at the same time or successively—too much Social Security could be withheld from your pay. If this happens, you are entitled to a refund of the excess withholding.

Spousal IRA

Generally, to contribute to a traditional or Roth IRA, you must have earned income. But a working spouse can contribute up to $6,000 of his or her earned income to an IRA for a nonworking spouse in 2019. The limit is $7,000 if the account owner is age 50 or older by the end of the year.

Standard deduction

A no-questions-asked write-off that reduces taxable income, the amount of which varies depending on your filing status. Taxpayers age 65 and older or blind get larger standard deductions. Unlike taxpayers who itemize deductions, you need no records to prove you deserve this deduction. Even if you somehow made it through the year without incurring any deductible expenses, you may still claim the full standard deduction. About two-thirds of all taxpayers use the standard deduction rather than itemize. Special rules can reduce the standard deduction for children who are claimed as dependents on their parents’ returns.

Standard deduction for a dependent

If you can claim a child as your dependent on your tax return, the child may not claim a personal exemption on his or her own tax return.

Standard mileage rate

The deductible amount you can claim for each mile you use your car for business, charitable, job-related moving or medical purposes without having to keep track of the actual cost. You can also deduct the actual cost of parking and tolls when driving for any of these purposes.

Stepped-up basis

The basis of inherited property is stepped-up to its value on the date of death of the owner, or a slightly later date if chosen by the executor of a taxable estate. In other words, tax on any appreciation during his or her lifetime is forgiven. The heir uses the higher basis to figure his or her gain when the property is ultimately sold. If the value of property declined while it was owned by the decedent, the basis is stepped-down to date of death value.

Student loan interest deduction

You can deduct a portion of the interest you pay on student loans used to pay for college or other post-high school education expenses for yourself, your spouse or your dependents. This tax break is phased out as income rises. You can claim this write-off whether or not you itemize deductions.


Taxable income

This can mean different things. It can refer to income that is taxable (such as wages, interest and dividends) rather than tax-exempt (such as the interest on municipal bonds). On tax returns, “taxable income” is your income after subtracting all adjustments, deductions and exemptions—that is, the amount on which your tax bill is computed.

Tax bracket

Each tax bracket encompasses a certain amount of income to be taxed at a set rate. The rates for 2019 run from 10 percent to 37 percent. You are said to be in the 22 percent bracket if your highest dollar of income falls in that bracket. Even if you’re in the 22 percent bracket, part of your income is taxed at the 10 percent rate and some at 12 percent. Some of your income—such as the amounts protected by your personal and any dependent exemptions and your standard or itemized deductions—is not taxed at all.

Tax-exempt interest

Interest paid on bonds issued by states or municipalities that is tax-free for federal income tax purposes. Although you must report this income on your return, it is not taxed. Note that some interest that is exempt from the regular tax is taxed by the Alternative Minimum Tax.

Tax-free income

All sorts of income can potentially be tax-free, including: Auto rebates; child-support payments; combat pay; damages in lawsuits for physical injury; disability payments, if you paid the premiums for the policy; dividends on a life insurance policy, up to the total of premiums paid; Education Savings Account withdrawals used for qualifying expenses; gifts; Health Savings Account withdrawals used for qualifying payments; inheritances; life insurance proceeds; municipal bond interest; policy officer survivor payments; profits from the sale of a home, up to $250,000 if you’re single or $500,000 if you’re married; qualified Roth IRA and Roth 401(k) withdrawals; scholarships and fellowship grants; Social Security benefits (between 15 percent and 100 percent are tax-free); veterans benefits; and workers’ compensation.

Taxpayer advocate

The official inside the IRS who is charged with helping individuals resolve their problems with the IRS, as well as identifying changes in IRS procedures that could make the agency more taxpayer-friendly. This official oversees IRS Problem Resolution Officers (PRO) around the country. You should go to a PRO, or ultimately the Advocate, if you are getting the run-around—or worse—from regular IRS channels.

Tax preference item

See Preference item.

Tax rebate

See Economic stimulus payment.

Ten-year averaging

This special tax-computation method for lump-sum distributions from pension and profit-sharing plans is available, but only to taxpayers born before January 2, 1936. If you qualify, it could save you a substantial amount.

Ten-year forward averaging

See Ten-year averaging.

Traditional IRA

See IRA.

Tuition credit

See College credits.

Tuition deduction

Qualifying taxpayers can deduct a portion of college expenses if their adjusted gross income is under certain limits. This break is available whether or not you itemize deductions, but is not available to students who are claimed as dependents on their parents’ return. It is available to their parents, though, if they pay the tuition. You cannot claim the deduction in the same year you claim an American Opportunity or Lifetime Learning credit for the same student. But because the income phase-out ranges for this deduction are higher than for the Lifetime Learning credit, some taxpayers whose income is too high to claim the Lifetime Learning credit will benefit from this write-off.


Unearned income

Income from investments, such as interest, dividends and capital gains. See Earned income.

Underpayment penalty

The penalty is the IRS’s not-so-subtle reminder that taxes are due as income is earned, not just on April 15 of the following year. Basically, it works like interest on a loan, with the penalty rate applied to the amount of estimated tax due, but unpaid by each of four payment dates during the year. The penalty rate is set by the IRS and can change each quarter. There are several exceptions to the penalty. See Estimated tax.


Vacation home

Special tax rules apply if you rent out a vacation home, and the rules differ depending on how much you use the home personally. While all rental income is to be reported, the deductibility of expenses can be limited if you engage in “too much” personal use—generally defined as using the home for more than 14 days during the year or more than 10 percent of the number of days it is rented for fair market rent.

Vested benefits

Benefits in a company retirement plan that are yours to keep if you leave the job. Your own contributions, to a 401(k), say, are immediately 100 percent vested. But employer contributions on your behalf can be vested gradually over a period of time, as a way to encourage you to stay with the employer. If you quit a job when just 50 percent of your benefits are vested, for example, you would forfeit half of the amount the employer has set aside for you.

Voluntary withholding

You can ask the Social Security Administration to withhold taxes from your Social Security benefits. This could make sense if withholding allows you to avoid making quarterly estimated tax payments. To request voluntary withholding, file form W-4V with Social Security. You can also ask a retirement plan sponsor to withhold from payouts from IRA distributions.


Wage base

The level of earnings to which the full Social Security tax applies. For 2019, the full 15.30 percent tax (the combined rate paid by employers and employees) applies to the first $132,900 of wages or self-employment income, and the 2.9 percent Medicare portion applies to all income over that level. (Employees pay part of the tax—7.65 percent up to the wage base limit and 1.45 percent after that—and their employers pay the other half. Self-employed taxpayers have to pay both halves.)

Wash sale

The sale of stocks, bonds or mutual fund shares for a loss when, within 30 days before or after that sale, you buy the same or substantially identical securities. The law forbids the deduction of the loss.


The amount held back from your wages each payday to pay your income and Social Security taxes for the year. The amount withheld is based on the size of your salary and the W-4 form you file with your employer.

Worthless security

If a stock you own becomes completely worthless during the year, you can claim a capital loss as though you sold the stock for $0 on December 31 of the year the stock became worthless.