Congress not only extended the current, lower individual income tax rates through 2012 in the recently enacted Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act); it also extended a number of beneficial tax breaks for families and individuals. Through 2012, the law extended significant tax incentives for education, children, and energy-saving home improvements.

Individual Tax Rates
The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends all of the current lower individual tax rates across the board, for all taxpayers, at 10, 15, 25, 28, 33, and 35 percent for two years, through 2012. In addition, under the new law the size of the 15 percent tax bracket for married couples filing jointly and surviving spouses remains double that of the 15 percent tax bracket for individual filers, thus continuing to provide “marriage penalty” relief.

State and local sales tax deduction. Congress also extended the deduction for state and local sales taxes in lieu of the state and local income tax deduction through 2011.

More marriage penalty relief
In addition to expanding the 15 percent income tax rate bracket, the 2010 Tax Relief Act also maintains the increased basic standard deduction for joint filers. Through 2012, the standard deduction for married taxpayers filing a joint return (and surviving spouses) is twice the basic standard deduction amount for single individuals. For example, the standard deduction for individuals for 2011 is $5,800; for married taxpayers filing jointly, the standard deduction for 2011 will be $11,600.

No personal exemption phaseout
Higher-income individuals and families will also benefit from the ability to claim an unreduced personal exemption. Before 2010, taxpayers with income over certain amounts were subject to phaseout of their personal exemption. However, under the 2010 Tax Relief Act, personal exemptions are not reduced, for an additional two years through 2012.

Expanded child tax credit
The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the $1,000 child tax credit for two years, through December 31, 2012. The child tax credit can be claimed for each qualifying child under age 17 (at the close of the year) that the taxpayer can claim as a dependent. However, the amount of the credit is reduced as a taxpayer’s income increases. The credit is reduced (but not below zero) by $50 for each $1,000 of modified adjusted gross income (AGI) above $110,000 for joint filers and above $75,000 for others. The new law also extends other enhancements to the credit, including the ability to offset both the regular tax and alternative minimum tax.

Expanded earned income tax credit
The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the enhanced earned income tax credit (EITC) for two years, through 2012. The new law also simplifies computation of the EITC.

Adoption credit
Through 2012, the new law expands the adoption credit and the exclusion from income for employer-provided adoption assistance. However, the new law does not extend certain changes made by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (PPACA) for 2010 and 2011. Therefore, the credit is not refundable after 2011 and the additional $1,000 under the PPACA is not available after 2011. For 2012, the maximum credit therefore is $12,170 (indexed for inflation after 2010) and is phased out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI over $182,520.

Dependent care credit
The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends the enhanced dependent care credit for two years, through 2012. A taxpayer who incurs expenses to care for a child under age 13 or for an incapacitated dependent or spouse, in order to enable the taxpayer to work or look for work, is eligible to claim the dependent care credit. The maximum credit that can be claimed through 2012 is $3,000 for one qualifying individual and $6,000 for more than one qualifying individual. Additionally, the maximum credit rate is 35 percent. Thus, for 2010, the maximum dependent care credit is $1,050 (35 percent of up to $3,000 of eligible expenses) for one qualifying individual and $2,100 for more than one qualifying individual (35 percent of up to $6,000 of qualified eligible expenses).

Tax breaks for education
The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends a number of tax incentives to help defray the costs of education. The new law extends the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), the student loan interest deduction, the exclusion from income for employer-provided assistance, and more. The AOTC, which is 40 percent refundable, can be claimed for expenses incurred for the first four years of a student’s post-secondary education. The credit equals 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified higher education tuition and related expenses (including course materials), and 25 percent of the next $2,000 of expenses. In effect, a maximum credit of $2,500 a year can be claimed for each eligible student.

Through 2012, employees who receive educational assistance from their employer can continue to exclude up to $5,250 in employer-provided educational assistance from their income and employment taxes. Graduate school tuition also qualifies for the exclusion.

Taxpayers will also continue to benefit from the $2,500 above-the-line student loan interest deduction through 2012. The new law also expanded the modified AGI range for the phaseout of the deduction. For 2010, for instance, the deduction phases out ratably for taxpayers with modified AGI between $60,000 and $75,000 ($120,000 and $150,000 for joint filers).

Coverdell education savings accounts (ESAs) provide taxpayers with another mechanism to save for education. The 2010 Tax Relief Act enables taxpayers to continue to contribute up to $2,000 a year to a Coverdell ESA for beneficiaries under age 18 (as well as special needs beneficiaries of any age). In addition to higher education expenses, Coverdell ESAs can be used to pay for elementary and secondary education expenses through 2012. However, the amount that can be contributed is subject to income phaseouts.

Incentives for energy-efficient improvements
The 2010 Tax Relief Act also rewards individuals and families who make energy-saving improvements to their home. For example, the new law extends through 2011 (only one year) the popular Code Sec. 25C tax credit, which provides a credit for expenses for qualified energy efficiency improvements and property, such as furnaces, water heaters, insulation materials, exterior windows, skylights, doors, and other items.