Various tax benefits - tax exemption, tax deferral, tax credits, and deductions - are available if you are paying or saving for college or other higher education costs. This Guide suggests ways to take advantage of these benefits.
Many tax benefits are available to help you pay higher education costs, whether for your children or yourself. Because of the variety of benefits and programs, the amounts often involved - and the fact that the use of some benefits can preclude others - this area is one of the most complex an individual can face. This Financial Guide discusses, first, the programs which are in essence plans for building savings for higher education, and then the benefits available as and after the higher education takes place. In this area more than most, professional guidance is necessary.
The eligibility rules vary for each tax benefit, with many limited to taxpayers whose income falls below certain levels.
Related Financial Guide: For more information about saving and investing to cover education costs, please see the Financial Guide: YOUR CHILD'S EDUCATION: How To Finance It.
Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (Section 530 Programs)
You can contribute up to $2,000 each year of 2009 and 2008 to a Coverdell education savings account (Section 530 program) for a child under 18. These contributions are not deductible, but they grow tax-free until withdrawn. Contributions for any year (say 2008) can be made through the (unextended) due date for the return for that year (April 15, 2009).
Note: For the $2,000 contribution limit, there is no adjustment for inflation and therefore, the limit is expected to remain at $2,000 for 2010 and beyond.
Only cash can be contributed to a Section 530 account and you cannot contribute to the account after the child reaches his or her 18th birthday.
Anyone can establish and contribute to a Section 530 account, including the child, as long as the contributor's modified AGI doesn't exceed $220,000 for a joint return or $110,000 for a single filer. You may establish 530s for as many children as you wish, and the child need not be a dependent - in fact, he or she need not be related to you. But the amount contributed during the year to each account cannot exceed $2,000. This maximum contribution amount for each child is phased out for AGI between $190,000 and $220,000 (joint) and $95,000 and $110,000 (single).
Note: A 6% excise tax applies to excess contributions. These are amounts in excess of the applicable contribution limit ($2,000 or phase out amount) and contributions for a year that amounts are contributed to a qualified tuition program for the same child. A qualified tuition program, sometimes called a Section 529 program, is a tax-favored state program to prepay education costs, see below. The 6% tax continues for each year the excess contribution stays in the 530 account.
The child must be named (designated as beneficiary) in the Coverdell document, but the beneficiary can be changed to another family member (for example, to a sibling where the first beneficiary gets a scholarship or drops out). And funds can be rolled over tax-free from one child's account to another's. Funds must be distributed not later than 30 days after the beneficiary's 30th birthday (or 20 days after the beneficiary's death if earlier). For "special needs" beneficiaries the age limits (no contributions after age 18, distribution by age 30) don't apply.
Withdrawals are taxable to the person who gets the money, with these major exceptions: Only the earnings portion is taxable (the contributions come back tax-free). Also, even that part isn't taxable income, as long as the amount withdrawn doesn't exceed a child's "qualified higher education expenses" for that year. The definition of "qualified higher education expenses" includes room and board and books, as well as tuition. In figuring whether withdrawals exceed qualified expenses, expenses are reduced by certain scholarships and by amounts for which tax credits (see Educational Credits, below) are allowed. If the amount withdrawn for the year exceeds the education expenses for the year, the excess is partly taxable under a complex formula. There's another formula if the sum of withdrawals from this 530 program and from the qualified tuition (Section 529) program exceed education expenses.
You as the person who sets up the Section 530 account may change the beneficiary (the child who will get the funds) or roll the funds over to the account of a new beneficiary, tax-free, if the new beneficiary is a member of your family. But funds you take back (for example, withdrawal in a year when there are no qualified higher education expenses, because the child is not enrolled in higher education) are taxable to you, to the extent of earnings on your contributions, and you will generally have to pay an additional 10% tax on the taxable amount. However, you won't owe tax on earnings on amounts contributed that are returned to you by June 1 of the year following contribution.
You may choose and change Section 530 investments freely - in contrast to Section 529 programs and, of course, Series EE bonds.
Tip: Check with your financial adviser about using both the Section 530 program, which has wide investment options but limited ($2,000 or less) contribution/investment amounts, and the Section 529 program, which has limited investment options but allows higher contribution/investment amounts.
Elementary and secondary schools
Section 530 programs can be used to build up funds for primary and secondary education. The tax rules are similar to those for higher education: withdrawals taxable to the extent of earnings on contributions, except tax-free up to the child's qualified elementary and secondary education expenses. These expenses qualify whether the child attends a private, religious or public school. Expenses such as room, board, tuition, transportation and uniforms will qualify only where connected with private or religious schools, but some expenses - books, computers, educational software and internet access - apply as well to children in public school living at home.
The age limits for higher education apply here too: no contribution after child reaches age 18, distribution at age 30 except for special needs beneficiaries. Withdrawals in excess of qualified education expenses are taxable under a special formula.
Qualified Tuition Programs (Section 529 Programs)
Every state now has a program allowing persons to prepay for future higher education, with tax relief. There are two basic plan types, with many variations among them:
- The prepaid education arrangement. Here one is essentially buying future education at today's costs, by buying education credits or certificates. This is the older type of program, and tends to limit the student's choice to schools within the state. Private colleges and universities may now offer this type.
- Education savings accounts. Here, contributions are made to an account to be used for future higher education.
In approaching state programs one must distinguish between what the federal tax law allows and what an individual state's program may impose.
You may open a Section 529 program in any state. But when buying prepaid tuition credits (less popular than savings accounts), you will want to know to what institutions the credits will be applied.
Unlike certain other tax-favored higher education programs, such as the Hope and lifetime learning tax credits, federal tax law doesn't limit the benefit to tuition, but can also extend it to room, board, books, etc. (Individual state programs could be narrower.)
The two key individual parties to the program are the Designated Beneficiary, the student-to-be, and the Account Owner, who is entitled to choose and change the beneficiary and who is normally the principal contributor to the program. There are no income limits on who may be an account owner. There's only one designated beneficiary per account. Thus, a parent with three college-bound children might set up 3 accounts. (Some state programs don't allow the same person to be both beneficiary and account owner.)
Contributions must be in cash, and must not total more than reasonably needed for higher education (as determined initially by the state). Neither account owner nor beneficiary may direct investments, but the state may allow the owner to select a type of investment fund (e.g., fixed income securities), and to change the investment annually, and when the beneficiary is changed. The account owner decides who gets the funds (can pick and change the beneficiary) and is legally allowed to withdraw funds at any time, subject to tax and penalty discussed later.
Funds in the account not yet distributed at the account owner's death pass as part of the probate estate under state law-though this is not the result for federal estate tax purposes, see below.
Federal Tax Rules
Income tax. Contributions made by the account owner or other contributor are not deductible for federal income tax purposes. Earnings on contributions grow tax-free while in the program.
Distributions from the fund are tax-free to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses. Distributions used otherwise are taxable to the extent of the portion which represents earnings.
A Section 529 distribution can be tax-free even though the student is claiming a Hope or lifetime learning credit, or tax-free treatment for a Section 530 Coverdell distribution, if the programs aren't covering the same specific expenses.
Distribution for a purpose other than qualified education is taxed to the one getting the distribution. In addition, a 10% penalty must be imposed on the taxable portion of the distribution, comparable to the 10% penalty in Section 530 Coverdell plans.
The account owner may change beneficiary designation from one to another in the same family. Funds in the account roll over tax-free for the benefit of the new beneficiary.
Gift Tax. For gift tax purposes, contributions are treated as completed gifts even though the account owner has the right to withdraw them. Thus they qualify for the up-to-$13,000 annual gift tax exclusion in 2009 ($12,000 in 2008). One contributing more than $13,000 may elect to treat the gift as made in equal installments over the year of gift and the following 4 years, so that up to $65,000 can be given tax-free in the first year.
A rollover from one beneficiary to another in a younger generation is treated as a gift from the first beneficiary, an odd result for an act the "giver" may have had nothing to do with.
Estate tax. Funds in the account at the designated beneficiary's death are included in the beneficiary's estate, another odd result, since those funds may not be available to pay the tax. Funds in the account at the account owner's death are not included in the owner's estate, except for a portion thereof where the gift tax exclusion installment election is made for gifts over $13,000. For example, if the account owner made the election for a gift of $65,000 in 2009, a part of that gift is included in the estate if he or she dies within 5 years.
Tip: A Section 529 program can be an especially attractive estate-planning move for grandparents. There are no income limits, the account owner giving up to $65,000 avoids gift tax, and estate tax by living 5 years after the gift, yet has the power to change the beneficiary.
State Tax: State tax rules are all over the map. Some reflect the federal rules, some quite different rules. For specifics of each state's program, see http://www.collegesavings.org.
Professional guidance: Considering the wide differences among state plans, the federal and state tax issues, and the dollar amounts at stake, professional guidance is advised.
Traditional and Roth IRAs
You can use a traditional or Roth IRA as a savings plan to pay qualified higher education expenses. With a traditional IRA you will owe income tax on at least part of the withdrawal; since Roth IRA investments are already tax-paid, withdrawals are less likely to be taxable. Withdrawals before age 59 1/2 to pay qualified higher education expenses are not subject to the additional 10% tax on early withdrawals.
To escape the 10% tax, you must pay education costs that at least equal your withdrawal amount. The education costs must be "qualified," - i.e. for tuition, fees, books, room and board, supplies, or equipment at a qualified institution of learning - and they must be for yourself, your spouse, or the children or grandchildren or yourself or your spouse. The qualified institution of learning may be any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school that is eligible to participate in federal Department of Education aid programs.
Tip: You do not actually have to use the IRA funds to pay education costs. That is, the tax relief doesn't require you to trace the IRA withdrawal dollars to a specific education expense payment. You can pay the costs with your own earnings or savings, with a loan, or with a gift or inheritance received by the student or the person making the withdrawal. You can use savings accumulated in a Section 529 (state sponsored) program.
However, you cannot count education costs paid with proceeds from the following in determining whether your IRA withdrawal is to be free of the 10% tax:
- Tax-free distributions from a Coverdell education savings account (Section 530 program);
- Tax-free scholarships, such as a Pell grant;
- Tax-free employer education assistance program;
- Any tax-free payment (other than a gift or bequest) that is due to enrollment at the qualified institution.
Education Savings Bonds
You can exclude from your gross income interest on qualified U.S. savings bonds if you have qualified higher education expenses during the year in which you redeem the bonds. The exclusion phases out where the bondholder has (modified) adjusted gross income (MAGI) over a specified amount in the year the bond is redeemed. The amount, indexed for inflation, is $67,100 (single) in 2008 and $100,650 (joint). The exclusion is unavailable to married filing separately. Further, it should be noted that the exclusion is not allowed for MAGI of $82,100 or more for single filers and $130,650 or more for joint filers. (Note: 2009 phase out income levels are not yet available.)
The education must be of the bondholder, his or her spouse or dependent. Qualified higher education expenses are tuition and fees, and contributions to Section 529 and 530 programs, reduced for tax-free scholarships and other relief.
A qualified U.S. savings bond means a Series EE bond issued after 1989. The bond must be either in your name or in the names of both you and your spouse, and you must be at least 24 years old before the bond's issue date.
Two tax credits are available for education costs - the Hope credit and the lifetime-learning credit. These credits are available only to taxpayers with adjusted gross income below specified amounts, see Income Phase-Outs, below.
How These Credits Work
The amount of the credit you can claim depends on (1) how much you pay for qualified tuition and other expenses for students and (2) your adjusted gross income (AGI) for the year.
You must report the eligible student's name and Social Security number on your return to claim the credit. You subtract the credits from your federal income tax. If the credit reduces your tax below zero, you cannot receive the excess as a refund. If you receive a refund of education costs for which you claimed a credit in a later year, you may have to repay ("recapture") the credit.
Caution: If you file married-filing separately, you cannot claim these credits.
Which costs are eligible. Qualifying tuition expenses mean tuition and fees required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible education institution. They do not include books, room and board, student activities, athletics (other than courses that are part of a degree program), insurance, equipment, transportation, or any personal, living, or family expenses. For expenses paid with borrowed funds, count the expenses when they are paid, not when borrowings are repaid.
Tip: If you pay qualified expenses for a school semester that begins in the first three months of the following year, you can use the prepaid amount in figuring your credit.
Example: You pay $1,500 of tuition in December 2008 for the winter 2009 semester, which begins in January 2009. You can use the $1,500 in figuring your 2008 credit. If you paid in January instead, you would take the credit on your 2009 return.
Tip: As future year-end tax planning, this rule gives you a choice of the year to take the credit for academic periods beginning in the first 3 months of the year; pay by December and take the credit this year; pay in January or later and take the credit next year.
Eligible students. You, your spouse, or an eligible dependent (someone for whom you can claim a dependency exemption, including children under age 24 who are full-time students) can be an eligible student for whom the credit can apply. If you claim the student as a dependent, qualifying expenses paid by the student are treated as paid by you, and for your credit purposes are added to expenses you paid. A person claimed as another's dependent can't claim the credit. The student must be enrolled at an eligible education institution (any accredited public, non-profit, or private post-secondary institution eligible to participate in student Department of Education aid programs) for at least one academic period (semester, trimester, etc.) during the year.
No "double-dipping." The tax law says that you can't claim both a credit and a deduction for the same higher education costs. It also says that if you pay education costs with a tax-free scholarship, Pell grant, or employer-provided educational assistance, you cannot claim a credit for those amounts.
Income Phase-outs. Your education credits are gradually phased out if your modified AGI for 2008 is between $48,000 and $58,000 ($96,000 and $116,000 for joint returns). Income phaseout limits for 2009 are not yet available. Once your modified AGI reaches the top limit of these ranges, you cannot claim any education credit. "Modified AGI" generally means your adjusted gross income. The "modifications" only come into play if you have income earned abroad.
The Hope Credit
The maximum Hope credit, which is available for the first two years of post secondary education,is $1,800 in 2009 and 2008. You can claim the Hope credit for each eligible student you have for which the Hope credit requirements are met. The credit can be claimed for only two years per eligible student.
Special qualification rules. In addition to being an eligible student, he or she:
- Must be a freshman or sophomore;
- Must be enrolled in a program leading to a degree, certificate, or other recognized credential;
- Must be taking at least half of a normal full-time load of courses, for at least one semester or trimester beginning in the year for which the credit is claimed; and
- May not have any drug-related felony convictions.
Amount of credit. The amount of the Hope credit in 2009 and 2008 is 100% of the first $1,200 plus 50% of the next $1,200 you pay for each eligible student or a maximum total of $1,800. These amounts are indexed for inflation. The maximum you can claim in 2009 and 2008 is $1,800 times the number of eligible students. Thus, you will benefit from the maximum $1,800 amount for each eligible student for whom you pay at least $2,400. Remember, however, that the credit may be reduced based on your AGI. The Hope credit is phased out with modified adjusted gross incomes between $48,000 and $58,000 for single filers and $96,000 to $116,000 for joint filers. Credit is not allowed for married filing separately.
The Lifetime Learning Credit
You may be able to claim a Lifetime Learning credit of up to $2,000 (20% of the first $10,000 of qualified expense) for eligible students (subject to reduction based on your AGI). Only one Lifetime Learning Credit can be taken per tax return, regardless of the number of students in the family. The eligibility rules for the Lifetime Learning credit are broader than those that apply to the Hope credit:
- Unlike the Hope credit, students need not be in the first two years of undergraduate education; all undergraduate and graduate programs qualify.
- Further, for courses taken to acquire or improve job skills, there are no requirements as to course loads, so that even one or two courses can qualify.
- The number of years for which this credit can be claimed is not limited.
Choosing the Credit. You can't claim both credits for the same person in the same year. But you can claim one credit for one or more family members and the other credit for expenses for one or more others in the same year - for example, a Hope credit for your child and a lifetime learning credit for yourself.
Electing Not To Take the Credit. There are situations in which the credit is not allowed, or not fully available, if some other education tax benefit is claimed - where the higher education expense deduction is claimed for the same student, see below, or where credit and tax exemption (under a Section 529 or 530 program) are claimed for the same expense. In that case the taxpayer - or, more likely, the taxpayer's tax adviser - will determine which tax rule offers the greater benefit and if it's not the credit, elect not to take the credit.
Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses Deduction
A limited deduction is allowed for "qualified higher education expenses" - tuition and related expenses under the same definition as for tuition credits, above. Business deduction is allowed already, without dollar limit, for education that serves the taxpayer's business, including employment. The Qualified Higher Education Tuition Deduction extends to expenses having no business connection, which is the usual case with higher education expenses. Where the taxpayer claims another education-related deduction, such as a business or interest deduction, this deduction can't be claimed for the same items.
The law doesn't prescribe who the expense must be paid for - self, dependent, etc. - but it precludes deduction for one who is another's dependent or who is married filing separately. And it can't be claimed where a tuition credit is claimed (by anyone) for the same student.
For 2009 and 2008, a deduction up to $4,000 is allowed if taxpayer's (modified) adjusted gross income (AGI) is $65,000 or less ($130,000 or less on a joint return). Deduction up to $2,000 is allowed taxpayers with AGI between $65,000–$80,000 ($190,000 - $220,000 on a joint return).
"Qualified higher education expenses" must be reduced by any such expense paid with an amount treated as tax-free under the rules for excluding income from Series EE bonds, or Section 529 or 530 programs.
The deduction is above the line - meaning it's not subject to the 2% floor on itemized deductions and is allowed whether or not the standard deduction is claimed.
Employer-Provided Education Assistance
If your employer paid education assistance benefits (e.g., reimbursements of tuition), part or all of them may be tax-free. You can exclude up to $5,250 per year of the benefits you receive under a qualified education assistance program. But you can't both exclude and deduct the same item, even if it's otherwise deductible. In order to qualify your employer must have established an educational assistance plan that does not discriminate in favor of highly paid employees or owners. The exclusion applies to undergraduate level courses other than those involving sports, game and hobbies. The courses do not need to relate to your job. The exclusion is available for tuition, fees, books and supplies but not meals, lodging or transportation. And it applies to benefits for graduate level courses.
In addition to the exclusion for qualifying education plans, your employer can provide reimbursement for business related courses, including graduate courses. If your employer does not reimburse you for these expenses, you may be entitled to deduct them as a miscellaneous itemized deduction subject to the 2% deduction floor. To qualify, the expense must meet the requirement of your employer or the law or maintain or improve skills in your current job. The course must not meet minimum education requirements for your job or qualify you for a new trade or business.
You may be able to deduct interest on student loans. You may also be able to exclude income that you would otherwise have to report if a student loan is cancelled.
Interest Deduction. You may deduct student loan interest you pay, including interest paid that's not currently due because payment is deferred.
Deduction is allowed even though it would otherwise be nondeductible personal interest. But you may deduct only if you are the one legally bound to pay the interest, and only on loans solely for qualified expenses (so not under open credit lines).
The student-loan deduction up to $2,500 is available in 2009 only to taxpayers whose AGI is below $150,000 (joint amount) or $75,000 (single amount). Married couples filing separately can't deduct. The deduction is phased out for those whose AGI is above $120,000 (joint amount) or $69,000 (single amount). The dollar amounts are indexed for inflation; these are the amounts for 2009. (For 2008, the respective AGI amounts for the phase out were $115,000-$145,000 (joint) and $55,000-70,000 (single).
The student-loan interest deduction is an "above the line" deduction - you don't have to itemize to claim it. The loan must have been taken out to cover education expenses of at least half-time study for yourself, your spouse, or a person who was your dependent when you took out the loan. The maximum deduction is $2,500.
Caution:You cannot deduct interest on a loan from a related person - e.g. a relative, or a business entity in which you have an ownership interest as defined by the tax law. And you can't deduct if you are claimed as a dependent.
Tip: Where interest fails to qualify under these tests, consider a home equity loan, interest on which is generally deductible.
Cancellation of Student Loan. If certain requirements are met, cancellations of student loans that are intended to induce students to perform certain services do not increase the student's gross income. This relief extends to certain private programs, as well as government and public programs.