The IRS stats are in: Here's how tax refunds look compared to last year

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The final stats are in from the IRS — and it looks like the average tax refund check isn’t all that different from last year.

The average refund check for the week ending April 19 was $2,725, according to the tax agency. That’s down 2% from a year ago.

In all, the federal government paid $260.9 billion in refunds to taxpayers, compared to $265.3 billion in 2018.

Tax returns are in the public eye as filers and accountants grapple with the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, the 2018 overhaul of the tax code.

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Under the new law, the standard deduction has been doubled to $12,000 for single filers ($24,000 for joint) and a number of key itemized deductions have been curtailed. The personal exemption — once valued at $4,050 for each filer, spouse and dependent — has been suspended.

The new law also doubled the child tax credit to $2,000 per kid under 17.

Finally, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act has trimmed down individual income tax rates across the board.Though the IRS data suggests that things aren’t all that different for individual taxpayers year over year, CPAs said that clients had plenty of surprises when they filed.

“Everyone wants to compare refunds from one year to the next, but that doesn’t tell the whole story,” said Debbie Freeman, CPA and director of financial planning at Peak Financial Advisors in Denver.

“They did generally see a benefit from tax reform, be it from the adjustment to their income tax brackets or from the larger child tax credit,” she said.

“But they also saw less withheld in taxes, meaning they had more money in their paychecks, which created less of a refund,” Freeman said.

Last year, the IRS and Treasury changed the tax withholding tables to closely follow the overhaul to the tax code. Employers use these tables and your Form W-4 to deduct income taxes from your pay.

Tax withholding is a balancing act. If you withhold too much in taxes, you’ll likely get a refund the following year. Withhold too little, and you will owe the IRS.

Filers — especially those who used to itemize deductions or who have a mixture of W-2 income and side-gig money — ought to review their tax withholding to avoid being underwithheld for 2019.

Another tax tweak that tripped up filers this spring is the change to unreimbursed employee expenses.

This tax break, which is now suspended, is part of a group of miscellaneous itemized deductions. Prior to the tax overhaul, filers could only claim them to the extent they exceeded 2% of adjusted gross income.

A range of workers — from traveling salesmen and telecommuters to construction workers and pipefitters — were hit when they could no longer deduct those unreimbursed employee costs, CPAs said.

Residents in high-tax states took a hit when the new tax law applied a $10,000 cap on the deduction for state and local taxes.

Homeowners on the coasts felt the pain acutely, due to their inability to fully deduct their property tax bills.

The top three counties with the highest average property taxes were Westchester County, New York ($17,392); Rockland County, New York ($12,925); and Marin County, California ($12,242), according to ATTOM Data Solutions.

If you were unhappy with your 2018 tax results, now is the time to act.

• Prepare for 2019: Clients who had tax projections last year were on track this spring, said Freeman. Meet with your CPA and see what you can do differently. “This is about education,” she said. “Not just with the tax law changes, but also being proactive with what you can do for next year.”

• Plan your giving strategy: If you’re on the bubble for itemizing deductions, consider working with your CPA on a charitable giving strategy. “Bunching” charitable giving allows you to stuff two or more years’ of donations into one year. This way, you itemize deductions every other year.

• Assess your withholding: If your withholding fell short in 2018, you’re likely to have a repeat performance in 2019 if you fail to act. Review your W-4 and make sure you are withholding sufficient taxes.

• Be tax-smart at work: Got a 401(k) plan? How about a health savings account at work? Saving in these accounts reduce your taxable income and boost your chances at retirement security.

If you have kids under 13, ask about a dependent care flexible spending account at work. This way, you can save up to $5,000 on a pretax basis to pay for summer day camp, after-school care and more.

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