Vernoia, Enterline + Brewer, CPA LLC

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, signed into law on January 2, 2013, extended the American Opportunity Tax Credit through (and including) the 2017 tax year. The credit, which is an enhanced version of the Hope tax credit for tuition, allows taxpayers to claim a credit against federal income taxes for costs of tuition and other qualified educational expenses paid for the taxpayer, his or her spouse, or a dependent claimed on the tax return who is enrolled at an eligible educational institution. An eligible educational institution would include any accredited public, nonprofit, or private college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary institution.

The maximum American Opportunity Tax Credit amount is $2,500 per eligible student per year, and it is available for each of the first four years of a student’s post-secondary education. (This represents an increase from the Hope credit maximum amount of $1,800 for each of the first two years of post-secondary education.)

The American Opportunity Tax Credit amount is not $2,500 across the board for each claimant, however. Broken down, the maximum credit amount is more accurately stated as being 100 percent of the first $2,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses, plus 25 percent of the next $2,000 of qualified tuition and related expenses. If, by way of an example, a taxpayer had only $3,000 of total qualified tuition and other related expenses, the maximum credit amount the taxpayer could claim would be $2,250. In addition, the credit is also partially refundable if a taxpayer’s total tax liability is less than the amount of the credit. Up to 40 percent of the credit amount is refundable.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit v. other educational benefits

The American Opportunity Tax Credit is one of several education tax benefits available to taxpayers, but because it cannot always be used in conjunction with these other benefits, taxpayers should compute their tax savings for each tax benefit and then decide which one claim. For example, a taxpayer cannot claim a tuition and fees tax deduction in the same taxable year that he or she claims either the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the Lifetime Learning Credit. Neither can a taxpayer claim the Lifetime Learning Credit for any student if he or she has opted to claim the American Opportunity Credit for that same student for the same tax year.

A taxpayer may, however, claim both an education tax credit and take distributions from a Coverdell Education Savings Account or a Qualified Tuition Program. The taxpayer must, however, subtract any qualified expenses used to figure the education credit from the amount of qualified expenses he or she subsequently uses to determine what portion of a distribution from a Coverdell ESA or a qualified tuition program is tax-free.

Before computing an education credit or deduction, the taxpayer should also determine whether or not the credit can be used towards those particular educational expenses. For example, the American Opportunity Tax Credit can be used not just toward tuition, but also toward expenses for books, equipment, and supplies that are required for coursework, but are not required as a condition of enrollment. The Lifetime Learning Credit on the other hand cannot be used for such expenses unless they are a condition of enrollment. However, the American Opportunity Tax credit can only be used for qualified education expenses incurred during each of the first four years of post-secondary education, whereas the Lifetime Learning Credit can be used toward graduate school expenses.

Other differences include that the American Opportunity Tax Credit can be used on a per student basis, meaning if one household has two qualified students, the tax return can claim two American Opportunity Tax Credits. But only one Lifetime Learning Credit can be claimed per return.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit, however, imposes a requirement that the student for whom the credit is claimed has no felony drug convictions. The Lifetime Learning Credit has no such requirement.

We will assume for now that the taxpayer has decided to go ahead and calculate the amount he or she can claim for an American Opportunity Tax Credit. The next question to ask is whether a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income (AGI) falls beneath the phase-out limit. The credit was designed for lower- and middle- income families, meaning higher-income families generally cannot claim the credit.

Who is eligible?

A taxpayer can claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit for qualified expenses paid by the taxpayer for the post-secondary education of the taxpayer, the taxpayer’s spouse, or the taxpayer’s claimed dependent for the tax year for which the credit is claimed. There is a threshold on the amount of adjusted gross income (AGI) a taxpayer can have before the credit amount begins to phase out. The credit amount begins to phase out for single filers, heads of household, and qualifying widowers with AGI of $80,000 and completely phases out for these taxpayers if their AGI exceeds $90,000. The threshold range for married taxpayers who file jointly is from $160,000 to $180,000. Married taxpayers who file separately cannot claim the credit.

Computing the credit

Step One: Computing total qualified education expenses. In order to compute the amount of the American Opportunity Tax Credit a taxpayer must first add up all his or her qualified education expenses. Generally, qualified education expenses are amounts paid during the tax year toward tuition and fees required for the student’s enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution. Often an educational institution will issue to the taxpayer a Form 1098-T, Tuition Statement, which includes the amount of tuition a taxpayer paid for that tax year. However, the IRS has warned that this amount can differ from the amount the taxpayer actually paid. For purposes of computing the credit, the IRS directs the taxpayer to use only the tuition amounts that he or she actually paid during the tax year.

Qualified education expenses do not include costs of room and board, insurance, medical expenses (including student health fees), transportation, and other similar personal, living, or family expenses. The costs associated with courses involving sports, games, or hobbies, or any noncredit course are generally not qualified education expenses unless such course or other education is part of the student’s degree program. As we stated above, taxpayers calculating the American Opportunity Tax Credit can also include amounts spent on books, supplies, and equipment that are required for a course of study in their qualified education expenses.

Step Two: Adjusting the amount of qualified educational expenses. The taxpayer must subtract from his or her total qualified educational expenses amounts received as tax-free educational assistance received during the tax year that are allocable to the particular academic period in question. Tax-free educational assistance includes:

  • The tax-free part of any scholarship or fellowship;
  • The tax-free part of any employer-provided educational assistance;
  • Tax-free veterans’ educational assistance, and
  • Any other educational assistance that is excludable from gross income (tax free).

“Tax-free” assistance does not include a gift, bequest, devise, or inheritance. It also does not include any portion of a scholarship or fellowship that must be included in gross income.

If after making these adjustments the amount of qualified education expenses exceeds the maximum credit of $2,500, the taxpayer can only claim $2,500. If the amount is lower than $2,500, the taxpayer can claim the whole amount. (Or less, if the taxpayer’s AGI is within the phase-out range. See Step Three, below.)

Step Three: Calculating any phase-out of the credit. A taxpayer whose AGI falls within the phase out ranges must reduce his or her credit amount ratably. To do this, the taxpayer should subtract his or her AGI from the top threshold amount ($180,000 for married joint filers; $90,000 for single filers, heads of household, and qualifying widowers). Next the taxpayer must divide the difference by either $20,000 (married joint filers) or $10,000 (single filers, heads of household, and qualifying widowers). The resulting quotient should be multiplied by the total amount of qualified education expenses after adjustments for tax-free educational assistance. The product of that should be subtracted from the total amount of qualified education expenses, after adjustments. The result is the amount of the American Opportunity Tax Credit the taxpayer can claim.

For example, if a single taxpayer in 2012 had $85,670 in AGI, he or she must subtract that amount from the top threshold amount for single taxpayers ($90,000). Then he would take the difference ($4,330) and divide it by $10,000. The quotient is .433, meaning the taxpayer must reduce his American Opportunity tax credit amount by 43.3 percent. If, the amount of the taxpayer’s qualified education expenses, after adjustments for scholarships, was $1,600, then the total credit amount that he could claim would be $891.20 because:

$1,600 – ($1,600 × .443) = $891.20

The refundable American Opportunity Tax Credit

If a taxpayer has a tax liability that is lower than the amount of the credit claimed, he or she may be eligible to receive a refundable tax credit of up to 40 percent of the credit amount (a maximum of $1,000). This means, that beyond just lowering a taxpayer’s federal tax liability, a portion of the full credit amount will be returned to the taxpayer in cash as part of the tax refund.

Another set of rules applies for purposes of determining who is eligible for the refundable portion. Generally the rules on refundability appear to be designed to benefit to low-income households with little or no tax liability. Thus, the refundable portion rules seem to exclude from eligibility single filing students, who may have some earned income from a summer job or work-study. The rules state that a taxpayer cannot receive a refundable American Opportunity Tax Credit if the taxpayer:

  • Is under age 18 at the end of the tax year; or
  • Is over age 18 at the end of the tax year and has income that was less than one-half of the taxpayer’s support; or
  • Is between age 18 and 24 at the end of the tax year, a full-time student, and has earned income that was less than one-half of his or her support; and
  • Has at least one living parent at the end of the tax year; and
  • Is not filing a joint return for 2012.

If the taxpayer is eligible for the refundable portion, the taxpayer multiplies the total amount of qualified educational expenses, after adjustments, that he or she is able to claim as an American Opportunity Tax Credit by 40 percent (or .40). That product becomes refundable and is entered onto Form 1040, line 66, in the Payments section of the tax return.

The rules for computing education credits and deductions can be confusing. Please contact our offices at (908) 725-4414 with any questions.

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