Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

Education tax incentives are often underutilized because the rules are so complex. Some of the incentives are tax credits; other deductions. There are also savings plans for education costs. Making things even more complicated is the on-again, off-again nature of the education tax incentives.  Under current law (as of June 2012), several taxpayer-friendly features of the incentives are scheduled to expire.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) is an enhanced version of the old Hope credit. The AOTC offers eligible taxpayers a credit of 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses and 25 percent of the next $2,000.  That means the credit reaches a maximum of $2,500.

Four years. The AOTC can be claimed for the first four years of a student’s post-secondary education (including college and university, vocational school and other qualified institutions of learning).

The full AOTC is available to individuals whose modified adjusted gross income is $80,000 or less ($160,000 or less for married couples filing a joint return). If your modified adjusted gross income is above that amount, the credit begins to phase out.  Eligible individuals may receive a refund of 40 percent of the AOTC.

Sunset.  The AOTC is scheduled to expire after 2012.  At that time, the old Hope credit will return.

Lifetime Learning Credit

The Lifetime Learning Credit is often in the shadow of the AOTC.  One reason may be that the Lifetime Learning Credit and the AOTC cannot be claimed in the same year. The Lifetime Learning Credit reaches $2,000 for qualified educational expenses.

Key difference. There is one very valuable difference between the Lifetime Learning Credit and the AOTC. There is no limit on the number of years the Lifetime Learning Credit can be claimed.  This requires careful planning.  Individuals who are considering graduate school may want to use the AOTC for undergraduate expenses and the Lifetime Learning credit for graduate school expenses.

No sunset.  The Lifetime Learning Credit is not scheduled to expire after 2012.  It is one of the few tax incentives that have essentially remained unchanged in recent years.

Student Loan Interest Deduction

Individuals who took out loans to finance their post-secondary education may qualify for a deduction. Student loan interest is interest you paid during the year on a qualified student loan. The loan proceeds must have been used for qualified higher education expenses, including tuition and room and board.

Above-the-line. The student loan interest deduction (and the expired higher education deduction discussed below) is an above-the-line deduction. This means you can claim the deduction even if you do not itemize deductions.

Sunsetting features. Under current law, there is no limitation as to the number of months during which interest paid on a student loan is deductible.  After December 31, 2012, a 60-month limitation is scheduled to return. The student loan interest deduction is subject to income limits.  Under current law, the   deduction is reduced when modified adjusted gross income exceeds $60,000 for single individuals ($125,000 for married couples filing a joint return) and is completely eliminated when modified adjusted gross income is $75,000 or more for single individuals ($155,000 for married couples filing a joint return). After December 31, 2012, these income limitations are scheduled to be significantly lower.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) are similar to IRAs. Contributions are not tax-deductible but the funds grow tax-free until distributed. Distributions are tax-free if they are used for qualified education expenses of the beneficiary.

Not just post-secondary.  Under current law, funds in a Coverdell ESA can be used for elementary and secondary school expenses as well as post-secondary education costs.  Coverdell ESAs are the only education tax incentive to offer this feature.  The AOTC, Lifetime Learning Credits and 529 plans (discussed below) are limited to post-secondary education.  However, this special feature of Coverdell ESAs is scheduled to expire after 2012.  At that time, Coverdell ESA dollars will only be available for post-secondary expenses.

Contribution limitation.  Total contributions to a Coverdell ESA cannot be more than $2,000 in any year for the beneficiary. This rule applies no matter how many Coverdell ESAs are established. However, the $2,000 amount is scheduled to fall to $500 after 2012. Income limitations also apply. If you use the funds in a Coverdell ESA for a non-qualified purpose, there is a 10 percent additional tax.

529 Plans

States and institutions of higher learning can create so-called “529 plans.” Funds in a 529 plan can be used for qualified post-secondary expenses, such as tuition and room and board, of the designated beneficiary.  Contributions are not tax-deductible but distributions are tax-free, so long as they pay qualified expenses. There are many 529 plans. Before selecting one, please contact our office.  We can help you select the 529 plan that meets your expectations.

No income limitations. 529 plans are similar to Coverdell ESAs with one very important difference. There are no income limitations for contributors.

Higher education deduction

Finally, there is the higher education deduction.  This popular deduction allows eligible individuals to claim a deduction for certain higher education costs.  The higher education tuition deduction reaches $4,000.  That’s the good news….the bad news is that the deduction expired after 2011.

May be renewed.  There have been several attempts in Congress to renew the deduction for 2012 but they have failed to pass.  Congress could renew the deduction late in 2012 or early in 2013 and make the deduction retroactive to January 1, 2012.

Like other education incentives, the higher education deduction had some restrictions.  One of the most important is income.  An individual’s modified adjusted gross income could not exceed $80,000 ($160,000 if married filing a joint return).

We have covered a lot of ground discussing these education tax incentives.  Please contact our office at (908) 725-4414 for more details and to discuss how we can create a plan using some or all of these incentives that delivers the most value.

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