Tax Benefits for Higher Education

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Many tax benefits are available to help you pay higher education costs, whether for your children or yourself. Let’s take a look at what’s available and how you can take advantage of these benefits to ease the financial burden of paying for education.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (Section 530 Programs)

Starting in 2013, you can contribute up to $2,000 to a Coverdell Education Savings account (a Section 530 program formerly known as an Education IRA) for a child under 18. These contributions are not deductible, but they do grow tax-free until withdrawn. Contributions for any year, for example, 2015 can be made through the (unextended) due date for the return for that year (April 15, 2016).

Only cash can be contributed to a Section 530 account and you cannot contribute to the account after the child reaches his or her 18th birthday. Section 530 programs can also be used to build up funds for primary and secondary education and the tax rules are similar to those for higher education.

Anyone can establish and contribute to a Section 530 account, including the child. You may establish 530s for as many children as you wish, but the amount contributed during the year to each account cannot exceed $2,000. The child need not be a dependent, and, in fact, does not even need to be related to you. The maximum contribution amount for each child is subject to a phase-out limitation with a modified AGI between $190,000 and $220,000 for joint filers and $95,000 and $110,000 for single filers.

The child must be named (designated as beneficiary) in the Coverdell document, but the beneficiary can be changed to another family member (for example, to a sibling where the first beneficiary gets a scholarship or drops out). And funds can be rolled over tax-free from one child’s account to another’s. Funds must be distributed not later than 30 days after the beneficiary’s 30th birthday (or 20 days after the beneficiary’s death if earlier). For special needs; beneficiaries the age limits (no contributions after age 18, distribution by age 30) don’t apply.

Withdrawals are taxable to the person who gets the money, with these major exceptions: Only the earnings portion is taxable (the contributions come back tax-free). Also, even that part isn’t taxable income, as long as the amount withdrawn doesn’t exceed a child’s qualified higher education expenses; for that year. The definition of qualified higher education expenses” includes room and board and books, as well as tuition. In figuring whether withdrawals exceed qualified expenses, expenses are reduced by certain scholarships and by amounts for which tax credits (see Educational Tax Credits, below) are allowed. If the amount withdrawn for the year exceeds the education expenses for the year, the excess is partly taxable under a complex formula. There’s another formula if the sum of withdrawals from this 530 program and from the qualified tuition (Section 529) program exceed education expenses.

Qualified Tuition Programs (Section 529 Programs)

Every state now has a program allowing persons to prepay for future higher education, with tax relief. There are two basic plan types, with many variations among them:

  1. The prepaid education arrangement. Here one is essentially buying future education at today’s costs, by buying education credits or certificates. This is the older type of program and tends to limit the student’s choice to schools within the state. Private colleges and universities may now offer this type.
  2. Education savings accounts. Here, contributions are made to an account to be used for future higher education.

In approaching state programs one must distinguish between what the federal tax law allows and what an individual state’s program may impose.

You may open a Section 529 program in any state. Unlike certain other tax-favored higher education programs, such as the American Opportunity Tax Credit and Lifetime Learning Credits, federal tax law doesn’t limit the benefit to tuition, but can also extend it to room, board, and books (individual state programs could be narrower).

Contributions must be in cash, and must not total more than reasonably needed for higher education (as determined initially by the state). Neither account owner nor beneficiary may direct investments, but the state may allow the owner to select a type of investment fund (e.g., fixed income securities), and to change the investment annually, and when the beneficiary is changed. The account owner decides who gets the funds (can pick and change the beneficiary) and is legally allowed to withdraw funds at any time, subject to tax and penalty discussed later.

Distributions from the fund are tax-free to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses. Distributions used otherwise are taxable to the extent of the portion which represents earnings.

A Section 529 distribution can be tax-free even though the student is claiming an American Opportunity Tax Credit or Lifetime Learning Credit, or tax-free treatment for a Section 530 Coverdell distribution, if the programs aren’t covering the same specific expenses.

Education Tax Credits

Two tax credits are available for education costs – the American Opportunity Tax Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit. These credits are available only to taxpayers with adjusted gross income below specified amounts.

How These Credits Work

The amount of the credit you can claim depends on (1) how much you pay for qualified tuition and other expenses for students and (2) your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year.

You must report the eligible student’s name and Social Security number on your return to claim the credit. You subtract the credits from your federal income tax. If the credit reduces your tax below zero, you cannot receive the excess as a refund. If you receive a refund of education costs for which you claimed a credit in a later year, you may have to repay (“recapture”) the credit.

Caution: If you file married-filing separately, you cannot claim these credits.

Which costs are eligible? Qualifying tuition and related expenses refer to tuition and fees, and course materials required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible education institution. They now include books, supplies and equipment needed for a course of study whether or not the materials must be purchased from the educational institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance.

“Related” expenses do not include room and board, student activities, athletics (other than courses that are part of a degree program), insurance, equipment, transportation, or any personal, living, or family expenses. Student-activity fees are included in qualified education expenses only if the fees must be paid to the institution as a condition of enrollment or attendance. For expenses paid with borrowed funds, count the expenses when they are paid, not when borrowings are repaid.

Tip: If you pay qualified expenses for a school semester that begins in the first three months of the following year, you can use the prepaid amount in figuring your credit.

Example: You pay $1,500 of tuition in December 2015 for the winter 2016 semester, which begins in January 2016. You can use the $1,500 in figuring your 2015 credit. If you paid in January instead, you would take the credit on your 2016 return.

Tip: As future year-end tax planning, this rule gives you a choice of the year to take the credit for academic periods beginning in the first 3 months of the year; pay by December and take the credit this year; pay in January or later and take the credit next year.

Eligible students. You, your spouse, or an eligible dependent (someone for whom you can claim a dependency exemption, including children under age 24 who are full-time students) can be an eligible student for whom the credit can apply. If you claim the student as a dependent, qualifying expenses paid by the student are treated as paid by you, and for your credit purposes are added to expenses you paid. A person claimed as another person’s dependent can’t claim the credit. The student must be enrolled at an eligible education institution (any accredited public, non-profit or private post-secondary institution eligible to participate in student Department of Education aid programs) for at least one academic period (semester, trimester, etc.) during the year.

No “double-dipping.” The tax law says that you can’t claim both a credit and a deduction for the same higher education costs. It also says that if you pay education costs with a tax-free scholarship, Pell grant, or employer-provided educational assistance, you cannot claim a credit for those amounts.

Income Limits. To claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit, your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) must not exceed $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers). To claim the Lifetime Learning Credit, MAGI must not exceed $65,000 ($130,000 for joint filers). “Modified AGI” generally means your adjusted gross income. The “modifications” only come into play if you have income earned abroad.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit was extended through tax year 2017 by the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012. The maximum credit, available only for the first four years of post-secondary education, is $2,500 for tax years 2013 to 2017. You can claim the credit for each eligible student you have for which the credit requirements are met.

Special Qualification Rules. In addition to being an eligible student, he or she:

  • Must be enrolled in a program leading to a degree, certificate, or other recognized credential;
  • Must be taking at least half of a normal full-time load of courses, for at least one semester or trimester beginning in the year for which the credit is claimed; and
  • May not have any drug-related felony convictions.

Amount of credit. The maximum amount of the AOC credit is $2,500. Generally, 40 percent of the AOC is now a refundable credit for most taxpayers, which means that you can receive up to $1,000 even if you owe no taxes.

The Lifetime Learning Credit

You may be able to claim a Lifetime Learning Credit of up to $2,000 (20 percent of the first $10,000 of qualified expense) for eligible students (subject to reduction based on your AGI). Only one Lifetime Learning Credit can be taken per tax return, regardless of the number of students in the family.

  • The credit can help pay for undergraduate, graduate and professional degree courses, including courses to improve job skills.
  • For courses taken to acquire or improve job skills, there are no requirements as to course loads, so that even one or two courses can qualify.
  • The number of years for which this credit can be claimed is not limited.

Choosing the Credit. You can’t claim both credits for the same person in the same year. But you can claim one credit for one or more family members and the other credit for expenses for one or more others in the same year – for example, an American Opportunity Tax Credit for your child and a Lifetime Learning Credit for yourself.

Electing Not To Take the Credit. There are situations in which the credit is not allowed, or not fully available, if some other education tax benefit is claimed – where the higher education expense deduction is claimed for the same student, see below, or where credit and tax exemption (under a Section 529 or 530 program) are claimed for the same expense. In that case the taxpayer – or, more likely, the taxpayer’s tax adviser – will determine which tax rule offers the greater benefit and if it’s not the credit, elect not to take the credit.

Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses Deduction Phased Out for 2015

A $4,000 above the line deduction (Form 8917) for “qualified higher education expenses” under the same definition as for tuition credits, above, was allowed for qualified tuition expenses in 2014, but has been phased out for 2015.

Employer-Provided Education Assistance

If your employer paid education assistance benefits (e.g., reimbursements of tuition), part or all of them may be tax-free. You can exclude up to $5,250 per year of the benefits you receive under a qualified educational assistance program. But you can’t both exclude and deduct the same item, even if it’s otherwise deductible. In order to qualify, your employer must have established an educational assistance plan that does not discriminate in favor of highly paid employees or owners. The exclusion applies to undergraduate level courses other than those involving sports, game and hobbies. The courses do not need to relate to your job. The exclusion is available for tuition, fees, books, and supplies but not meals, lodging or transportation. And it applies to benefits for graduate level courses.

In addition to the exclusion for qualifying education plans, your employer can provide reimbursement for business related courses, including graduate courses. If your employer does not reimburse you for these expenses, you may be entitled to deduct them as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the 2 percent deduction floor. To qualify, the expense must meet the requirement of your employer or the law or maintain or improve skills in your current job. The course must not meet minimum education requirements for your job or qualify you for a new trade or business.

Student Loans

You may be able to deduct interest on student loans. You may also be able to exclude income that you would otherwise have to report if a student loan is canceled.

Interest Deduction. You may deduct student loan interest you pay, including interest paid that’s not currently due because payment is deferred.

Deduction is allowed even though it would otherwise be nondeductible personal interest. But you may deduct only if you are the one legally bound to pay the interest, and only on loans solely for qualified expenses (so not under open credit lines).

The student-loan deduction (up to $2,500 starting in 2013), was made permanent by AFTRA, but only to taxpayers whose AGI is below $160,000 (joint filers) or $80,000 (single filers). Married couples filing separately can’t take the deduction.

The student-loan interest deduction is an “above the line” deduction. In other words, you don’t have to itemize in order to claim it. The loan must have been taken out to cover education expenses of at least half-time study for yourself, your spouse, or a person who was your dependent when you took out the loan.

Caution: You cannot deduct interest on a loan from a related person, for example, a relative, or a business entity in which you have an ownership interest as defined by the tax law. And you can’t deduct if you are claimed as a dependent.

Tip: Where interest fails to qualify under these tests, consider a home equity loan, interest on which is generally deductible.

Cancellation of Student Loan. If certain requirements are met, cancellations of student loans that are intended to induce students to perform certain services do not increase the student’s gross income. This relief extends to certain private programs, as well as government and public programs.

If you have any questions, please feel free to call us at 208-373-7890.

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