Russell: Senior tax credit offers relief from winter woes

Laura Henze Russell

With winter's cold winds just around the corner and skyrocketing energy costs, it is a trying time for seniors living on fixed incomes. Any savings invested in the stock market are plummeting faster than the thermometer. Seniors need all the help they can get in filling the holes in their budgets. These programs were created for you by your legislators, so please apply to them.

For people 65 and older, the Mass. Income Tax Senior Circuit Breaker Tax Credit - and the range of state and local property tax exemption, deferral and work-off programs - can go a long way to help stretch your budget dollars - and can start helping you right now.

Flyers describing property tax relief programs for 2008 are posted on in Consumers Corner. The Department of Revenue has updated its materials on; see Tax Tips for Seniors and Retirees. Under the Circuit Breaker, seniors whose property taxes plus half of water and sewer bills, or 25 percent of rent, exceeds 10 percent of their income, can get a refundable tax credit of that amount up to a cap that increases with inflation, it was $900 in 2007 and will be $930 in 2008.

Like the Earned Income Tax Credit, you don't have to earn enough to owe Massachusetts income taxes; you just need to fill out Form 1 and Schedule CB to get the tax credit check to help defray the cost of your property taxes or rent. Even better, the law allows qualifying seniors, if they have not yet filed for the credit, to file for three years retroactively, right now. Within weeks, they can receive a refundable tax credit - a check - for up to $2,610 if they qualify for the maximum amount each year.

The income limits were set as a percentage of median incomes, and are adjusted for inflation each year. For 2008 the income limits are $49,000 for an individual, $62,000 for a head of household, and $74,000 for a couple. The house value limit was recently raised by the legislature and is pegged to the housing consumer price index; for 2008 the house value limit is $793,000. In addition to filing now for the past three years, seniors can file again with their 2008 returns.

The combined four years of help to offset property taxes can reach $3,540, about three times last year's maximum fuel assistance payment of $1,165, almost twice the maximum food card payment of $1,944, and nearly 12 times the IRS economic stimulus payment of $300 per person, which you can still file for with the IRS by October 15. Add them together and you have real money to help meet skyrocketing bills. Fuel assistance and food cards (net income after deductions) are available to those with incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level, $20,800 for a household of one and $28,000 for a household of two.

The Executive Office of Elder Affairs has worked to publicize these programs through a series of Senior Benefits Expos around the state. The Elders Living on the Edge Program at the UMass Boston Gerontology Institute has done a handful of trainings and cross-trainings on the Senior Circuit Breaker and other property tax help programs with the Department of Revenue and Massachusetts Councils on Aging Senior Property Tax Relief Task Force. But many seniors still have not filed for the tax credit.

If you need help, please apply now for the Mass. Senior Circuit Breaker income tax credit. If you can, pass the word and lend a hand to help other seniors you know file for it. It is also worth noting that if Question 1 passes, the Senior Circuit Breaker tax credit, and the Earned Income Tax Credit, will both be eliminated along with the state's income tax. Spread the word, and don't delay.

Laura Henze Russell is Director of the Elders Living on the Edge Program at the Gerontology Institute, McCormack Graduate School, University of Massachusetts Boston. She will soon be releasing a new report, Lifelines for Elders Living on the Edge: How Elder Help Programs Compare to Living Costs.