What’s new in back-to-school tax savings?

It is no secret to students, working individuals going back to school, and their families that the cost of education is becoming continuously more expensive year after year. The Tax Code provides a variety of significant tax breaks to help pay for the rising costs of education, from elementary and secondary school to college and graduate school. Individuals may be surprised to learn the many different ways the tax laws can help make education more affordable these days. In addition to scholarships, loans and work-study grants, or simply by themselves, these incentives can provide valuable cost savings.

 Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning credit can be claimed for qualified tuition and fees paid by an individual for his or her (or a spouse’s or dependent’s) enrollment at any college, university, vocational school, or postgraduate school. The credit is equal to 20 percent of up to $10,000 of the qualified tuition and related expenses paid by a taxpayer during the tax year. Thus, the maximum credit amount per taxpayer return is $2,000.

The Lifetime Learning credit can be claimed for all years of postsecondary school (as well as for courses to acquire or improve job skills). However, the credit phases out as your modified AGI rises, and you can not claim the credit if you are married filing separately. You cannot claim a credit if your modified AGI is $60,000 or more ($120,000 or more if you file a joint return).

American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), which was previously the Hope scholarship credit but temporarily enhanced and renamed the AOTC for 2009 and 2010, can also be claimed for qualified tuition and fees paid by an individual for his or her (or a spouse’s or dependent’s) enrollment or attendance at any college, university, vocational school or postgraduate school.

The AOTC can be used for all four years of post-secondary school. Further, the credit can be taken for more expenses, such as text books and course materials. And, although the credit phases out as adjusted gross income (AGI) rises, the income phase out range is increased through 2010 as well. Additionally, 40 percent of the credit is refundable.

 For 2010, the AOTC is available up to a maximum of $2,500 per eligible student, per year (100 percent of the first $2,000 eligible expenses plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 eligible expenses). The credit phases out at higher income levels, making the credit available to more families as well. The amount of the credit begins to phase out when an individual’s AGI falls between $80,000 to $90,000 AGI. For married joint filers the credit phases out when AGI falls between $160,000 and $180,000.

 AOTC vs. Lifetime Learning credit

The AOTC and Lifetime Learning credits cannot both be taken for the same student in the same year. If you pay the qualified education expenses of more than one student in the same year, however, you can choose to take the credits on a per-student basis for that year (for example, you may claim the AOTC for your daughter and the lifetime learning credit for your son, etc). You should calculate the effect of the AOTC, Lifetime Learning Credit (and, if retroactively reinstated for the 2010 year, the higher education expense deduction) on your tax return to see which incentive achieves the greatest tax savings. Remember, also, in “doing the math” that the tax benefits are based on calendar tax years and not school academic years.

Coverdell Education Savings accounts

Individuals can contribute up to $2,000 a year to a Coverdell Education Savings account, which is established to help pay for the costs of education of an account beneficiary. A beneficiary is someone who is under age 18 or with special needs.

Although contributions to a Coverdell account are not deductible, earnings grow tax-free, and distributions are also tax free if used for qualified education expenses, including tuition and fees, required books, supplies and equipment, as well as qualified expenses for room and board. The account can help pay for the costs of attending an elementary or secondary school, whether public, private or religious, as well as a college or university.

As with the education credits, there are contribution limits based on the contributor’s modified AGI.

IRA withdrawals for education expenses

Generally, if you take a distribution from your IRA before you reach age 59 1/2 you must pay a 10 percent additional tax on the early distribution, as well as income tax on the amount distributed. This applies to any IRA you own, whether it is a traditional IRA, a Roth IRA or a SIMPLE IRA. However, you can take an IRA distribution before age 59 1/2 and avoid the 10 percent tax (but not the inclusion of the distributed amount in income for income tax purposes), if the distribution is used to pay the qualified education expenses for:

  • Yourself;
  • Your spouse; or
  • Your or your spouse’s child, grandchild or foster child.

The amount of the withdrawal is generally limited to $10,000. Qualified education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at any college, university, vocational school or other post-secondary educational institution. In addition, if the student is at least a part-time student, room and board are generally qualified education expenses, subject to certain limitation.

Section 529 college savings plans

Qualified tuition programs, more commonly referred to as 529 plans, allow you to either prepay education expenses or contribute to an account set up for paying a student’s qualified education expenses at eligible educational institutions. A 529 plan allows you to save money, tax-free, to pay for qualified education expenses for college. Although contributions are not deductible for federal tax purposes, many states allow residents to deduct contributions on their state tax return. Moreover, withdrawals from a 529 plan are tax-free unless the amount distributed is greater than the account beneficiary’s adjusted qualified education expenses. Qualified education expenses include amounts paid for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment, as well as reasonable costs of room and board for individuals are at least part-time students.

Computer and technology expenses. Through 2010, parents and students can take tax-free withdrawals from their 529 plans to buy computers and computer-related equipment for college. The 2009 Recovery Act added computers, computer equipment, technology, internet access, and “related services” to the list of qualified higher education expenses that can be paid for with tax-free 529 withdrawals. However, as with the AOTC, this expanded incentive is temporary and applies only through 2010 (unless Congress extends this tax break). However, tax-free withdrawals can not be taken for computer software designed for games, sports or hobbies, unless the software is “predominantly educational in nature.”

Caution. While the tax law allows you to combine the tax benefits of a 529 plan with one of the education credits or deductions, you cannot “double dip.” That is, the expenses you use to compute the AOTC (or Lifetime Learning Credit) cannot also be included as a qualified higher education expense for purposes of determining your tax exclusion for 529 plan withdrawals. Remember, too, that states have their own rules regarding education benefits, such as withdrawals from 529 plans. These must be considered as part of your education tax savings strategy.

Student loan interest deduction

Eligible individuals can take an above-the-line deduction for up to $2,500 of interest paid on student loans used to pay for the cost of attending any college, university, vocational school, or graduate school. A student loan, for purposes of the deduction, is a loan you took out and is designated solely to pay your (or your spouse’s or dependent’s) qualified education expenses. For example, if you take out a home equity loan to pay for college tuition, the interest may be deductible as mortgage interest, but it is not considered above-the-line interest for a student loan since the lender did not specifically restrict the proceeds to education expenses.

Good news on student loan interest, however, is that qualified education expenses include not only tuition and fees, but also room and board, books, supplies and equipment, and other necessary expenses such as transportation. Interest paid on a loan that is made to you by a related person, such as parents or grandparents, or from a qualified employer plan do not qualify for the deduction.

The deduction is available regardless of whether or not you itemize. The amount of the deduction begins to phase out when an individual’s modified AGI exceeds $55,000 a year (or $115,000 for married couples filing jointly). The deduction is completely eliminated once an individual’s modified AGI reaches $70,000 (or $145,000 for joint filers). If you are claimed as a dependent on another’s tax return, you can not take the deduction, however.

Expired incentives hanging in the wings

At the end of 2009, two popular, but temporary, tax incentives expired: the higher education tuition deduction and the teachers’ classroom expense deduction of up to $250. Congress is working on legislation to extend these benefits through 2010. We will keep you posted on its progress.


About Don James, CPA/PFS, CFP
Don is the Tax & Financial Planning partner with Kiplinger & Co., CPAs headquartered in sunny Cleveland, Ohio since 1982. He partners with business owners and families and specializes in goal achievement solutions, tax minimization strategies and serves in the role of gatekeeper of sound financial advice.

4 Responses to What’s new in back-to-school tax savings?

  1. Back Taxes says:

    I wish I could find the time to write consistantly at my blog, on a day to day basis, like you do. Nicely done! I look forward to your additional article.

  2. Great advice and tips, Thanks so much!

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