Back-to-school look at education tax benefits

The start of the school year is a good time to consider the variety of tax benefits available for education. Congress has been generous in providing education benefits in the form of credits, deductions and exclusions from income. The following list describes the most often used of these benefits.

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Exclusion From Income

Scholarships. A student enrolled in an educational program may receive a scholarship or fellowship to pay for all or part of the student‘s tuition and fees. These amounts are not included in the student‘s (or the parent’s) income. Need-based education grants, such as a Pell Grant, and tuition reductions are also excluded from income. However, amounts paid for work on campus may be taxable as compensation for services. Payments to cover room and board as opposed to tuition are also subject to tax.

Loan cancellation. Most students take out loans to pay for education expenses. Normally, if a debt is cancelled, the debtor has taxable income. However, if a student loan is canceled or reduced, the cancelled amount is not included in income.

Employer assistance. If you receive educational assistance benefits from your employer under an educational assistance program, you can exclude up to $5,250 of those benefits each year. Courses do not have to be related to your job. If they are related, further tax benefits may be available.

Education plans. Generally, amounts paid to establish an education plan, account or savings bond are not deductible. However, income on the account can grow tax-free (unlike a bank account, for example), and distributions of income from the account are not taxable if they are used for tuition and other qualified education expenses. These general rules apply to a Coverdell Education Savings Account (an education IRA), a qualified tuition program (QTP or “529 plan”), and certain U.S. savings bonds. In the last category or Series EE bonds issued after 1989 and Series I bonds.  A qualified tuition program is established by a state and may provide payments for prepaid tuition or an account with tax-free earnings.

Tax Credits

LLC and AOTC. A lifetime learning credit (LLC) of up to $2,000 is available education expenses for a dependent for whom you claim an exemption. More recently, parents can claim an American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) of up to $2,500 for college expenses paid for each eligible student. The current, enhanced level of the AOTC is scheduled to expire at the end of 2012, but the Obama administration has asked Congress to make it permanent.

Dependent care. Parents can take a credit for dependent care expenses paid so that they can work. Expenses for care do not include amounts paid for education. Expenses for a child in nursery school, pre-school, or similar programs for children below the level of kindergarten are expenses for care. Expenses to attend kindergarten or a higher grade are not expenses for care. However, expenses for before- or after-school care of a child in kindergarten or a higher grade may be expenses for care, so that a credit can be claimed.

Deductions

Some deductions can be taken directly against gross income, in determining adjusted gross income. These are adjustments to income or “above-the-line“ deductions. Other deductions can only be taken as an itemized deduction. An above-the-line deduction is more valuable.

Above-the-line. Tuition expenses of up to $4,000 can be deducted directly against income. Tuition that also qualifies for one of the education tax credits, however, can be used only once, either for a credit or this above-the-line deduction. Ordinarily, interest paid is a nondeductible personal expense (other than home mortgage interests). However, interest paid on a student loan interest is deductible and can also be taken as an adjustment to income.

Itemized. Not all education-related expenses are deductible. However, a taxpayer may be able to claim a deduction for the expenses paid for your work-related education. The deduction will be the amount by which qualifying work-related education expenses exceed two percent of adjusted gross income. These expenses are added to other itemized deductions, to determine whether the taxpayer will itemize or claim the standard deduction.

Gift tax

Generally, a person making a gift must pay gift tax if the gift exceeds a specified amount ($13,000 currently). However, tuition paid directly to an educational institution to cover tuition for someone else’s benefit (e.g. a grandchild) is not taxable gift irrespective of amount. Prepaid tuition plans can qualify for this benefit.

A variety of educational benefits are available. In some cases, a deduction or a credit (but not both) may be available for the same payment. Thus, it is important to determine the exact requirements for each benefit and the amount of the benefit. Our office can help you determine how to maximize these benefits.


If and only to the extent that this publication contains contributions from tax professionals who are subject to the rules of professional conduct set forth in Circular 230, as promulgated by the United States Department of the Treasury, the publisher, on behalf of those contributors, hereby states that any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in such contributions was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.