For many parents it is has become very difficult to save for or pay for your child’s college education. Recognizing this, the federal government has stepped up its efforts to provide education tax benefits and incentives. While that is a good thing, understanding the myriad of education tax benefits and incentives out there can be frustrating and confusing to the average person. Lately, it seems every time you turn around there is some additional tax legislation in the area of education. Let’s review the various tax benefits and incentives available.
Hope Credit (American Opportunity Tax Credit)
Provides a tax credit for calendar years 2009 and 2010 of up to $2,500 for undergraduates in school more than half time. It can be claimed for all four years of undergraduate study. The first $2,000 of tuition costs and related fees (not room and board, however) are entitled to a 100% credit, while the next $2,000 of tuition costs (not room and board, however) are entitled to a 25% credit. Once your tuition costs exceed $4,000, there is no more Opportunity credit available. The credit is partially refundable. This means if you have no tax liability you are still eligible for a refundable credit of up to $1,000. If you are married parents with income of more than $160,000 your credit is phased out. If you are single, the credit begins to phase out when income levels exceed $90,000. This credit may be claimed by taxpayers who are subject to the dreaded alternative minimum tax, which is a good thing. You must reduce eligible education costs if you are receiving a scholarship, Pell grant, employer-provided educational assistance (tuition reimbursement) or distributions from 529 Plans.
Lifetime Learning Credit
Provides a nonrefundable tax credit of up to $2,000 for undergraduate, graduate and other tuition-related costs incurred during the calendar year. The first $10,000 of tuition costs and related fees (not room and board, however) are eligible for a 20% credit. You cannot claim this credit if you are also claiming the Hope Tax Credit in the same year for the same college student (no double dipping). This credit phases out in 2009 when your income level exceeds $100,000 (marrieds) or $50,000 (singles). You must reduce eligible education costs if you are receiving a scholarship, Pell grant, employer-provided educational assistance (tuition reimbursement) or distributions from 529 Plans.
529 College Savings Plans
When you contribute to a 529 Plan you do so with after tax dollars (net pay). The main tax benefit of 529 Plans is that earnings and gains are tax-deferred and if you make distributions from a 529 Plan to pay for qualified education expenses, then the earnings and gains are never taxed. One of the big advantages of 529 plans is that qualified education expense includes tuition, room and board. This means that even if your child gets a full scholarship for tuition, you can tap your 529 Plan to pay for his or her room and board. This is a big advantage over the Hope and Lifetime credits. You can contribute up to $13,000 for each child. This is a gift tax restriction. Anyone can contribute to your child’s 529 plan. Are you reading this grandparents? Each plan has an owner (typically the parent or grandparent) and one beneficiary (typically your child or grandchild). There is a provision that allows an acceleration of up to five years worth of contributions, or up to $65,000 in one year. This is an exception to the $13,000 gift tax restriction. If you make this election, you must file a gift tax return in the year of the contribution, however, there is no gift tax due, under this exception. You must reduce eligible education costs if you are receiving a scholarship, Pell grant or employer-provided educational assistance (tuition reimbursement).
Allows a non-deductible contribution using after tax dollars (net pay). Distributions from a Coverdell IRA (aka Education IRAs) are not taxed if such distributions are made for qualified education expenses. Qualified education expenses include tuition, room and board. The main advantage of Coverdell IRAs is the flexibility. Distributions may be made for elementary school, high school and tutoring costs, in addition to college expenses. This tax benefit phases out in 2009 when your income level exceeds $220,000 (marrieds) or $110,000 (singles).
For 2009, taxpayers may deduct up to $4,000 in tuition and fees expenses as an above-the-line deduction (i.e. deduction from gross income). This deduction is available even if you do not itemize. The deduction is phased out when your income level exceeds $130,000 (marrieds) or $65,000 (singles).
Student Loan Interest Deduction
Borrowers of federal and private education loans may deduct up to $2,500 in interest as an above-the-line deduction (i.e. deduction from gross income). This deduction is available even if you do not itemize. Available for undergraduate or post-graduate program loans. The deduction is phased out when your income level exceeds $150,000 (marrieds) or $75,000 (singles).
Distributions of principal (not earnings/gains) from Roth IRA accounts, open for five years or more, can be used to fund all college costs without any tax consequences.
Distributions made from Traditional IRAs by individuals under 59 1/2 are subject to income tax and a ten percent penalty, however, if the distributions are for college tuition and fees, then the ten percent penalty is waived.
Series I or EE Bonds
Earnings on Series I or EE bonds are exempt if the money from the bonds is used to pay college tuition and fees. The exemption from earning is phased out when your income level exceeds $134,900 (marrieds-2009) or $84,950 (singles-2009).
Home Equity Loans
Money borrowed from home equity lines of credit or home equity term loans may be used to pay for all college costs. Interest on these loans is tax deductible on debt up to $100,000, but only for regular income tax purposes (not deductible for alternative minimum tax purposes).
Pell Grants are outright gifts for undergraduate tuition costs. These grants are available only when the applicant can establish a financial need (“Financial Need” means you are at or near the poverty level) . Grants are capped at $5,350 for 2009/2010.
Like the Pell Grant, the applicant must show a financial need to qualify. For undergraduate students, the maximum available under this program is $4,000 per year. For graduate students, the maximum available under this program in $6,000 per year. There is a ten year repayment term with a nine month grace period following graduation.
Subsidized Stafford Loans
Like the Pell Grants and the Perkins Loan programs, this is a financial needs-based program. The federal government pays interest while your child is in college or graduate school. There are maximum subsidized amounts that you may borrow each year of $3,500 (Freshman), $4,500 (Sophomore) and $5,500 (Junior/Senior). Undergraduate cumulative subsidized loan amounts are capped at $23,000 for dependent students and graduate cumulative subsidized loan amounts are capped at $65,000. You may borrow an additional $2,000 per year beyond the subsidized amounts, however, this $2,000 is unsubsidized (meaning interest is not paid by the federal government on these amounts). You are required to file a FAFSA application under the Stafford Loan program to determine eligibility.
Unsubsidized Stafford Loans
Interest on these loans is capitalized while the student is in school. There is a grace period for any payments on these loans that ends upon graduation. Interest rates are higher under the unsubsidized Stafford Loan program. You are required to file a FAFSA application under the Stafford Loan program to determine eligibility.
These are loans made by traditional lenders. These loans must be paid back even while the student is in school (no grace period) . Interest rates are significantly higher than under the Stafford Loan program. There are no earnings limits restricting your ability to borrow funds under the PLUS Loan program. The PLUS Loan is a federal student loan and therefore must be “certified” (approved) by the college’s or university’s financial aid office. If your college or university requires the FAFSA for all students, they will not certify a PLUS Loan (even though it’s a loan for the parents) without a FAFSA on file.
Employer-Provided Education Assistance (Tuition Reimbursement)
Reimbursements by employers for undergraduate or graduate school tuition and related fees are excluded from employee income (W-2) to the extent such reimbursements do not exceed $5,250 per year.
Tom is a Certified Public Accountant, a Certified Financial Planner, CLTC (Certified Long-Term Care) and President of Cerefice & Company, the largest CPA firm in Rahway, New Jersey. Tom works with clients helping them manage their money, retirement planning, college savings, life insurance needs, IRAs and qualified plan rollovers with an eye towards maximizing tax benefits and minimizing taxes. Tom is founder of the Rich Habits Institute and author of “Rich Habits”.