Tax benefits that can help with the expense of higher education

With back-to-school season in full swing, the Internal Revenue Service reminds parents and students about tax benefits that can help with the expense of higher education.

Two college tax credits apply to students enrolled in an eligible college, university or vocational school. Eligible students include the taxpayer, their spouse and dependents.

AMERICAN OPPORTUNITY TAX CREDIT

The American Opportunity Tax Credit, (AOTC) can be worth a maximum annual benefit of $2,500 per eligible student. The credit is only available for the first four years at an eligible college or vocational school for students pursuing a degree or another recognized education credential. Taxpayers can claim the AOTC for a student enrolled in the first three months of 2018 as long as they paid qualified expenses in 2017.

LIFETIME LEARNING CREDIT

The Lifetime Learning Credit, (LLC) can have a maximum benefit of up to $2,000 per tax return for both graduate and undergraduate students. Unlike the AOTC, the limit on the LLC applies to each tax return rather than to each student. The course of study must be either part of a post-secondary degree program or taken by the student to maintain or improve job skills. The credit is available for an unlimited number of tax years.

To claim the AOTC or LLC, use Form 8863, Education Credits (American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits). Additionally, if claiming the AOTC, the law requires taxpayers to include the school’s Employer Identification Number on this form.

Form 1098-T, Tuition Statement, is required to be eligible for an education benefit. Students receive this form from the school they attended. There are exceptions for some students.

OTHER EDUCATION BENEFITS

Other education-related tax benefits that may help parents and students are:

  • Student loan interest deduction of up to $2,500 per year.
  • Scholarship and fellowship grants. Generally, these are tax-free if used to pay for tuition, required enrollment fees, books and other course materials, but taxable if used for room, board, research, travel or other expenses.
  • Savings bonds used to pay for college. Though income limits apply, interest is usually tax-free if bonds were purchased after 1989 by a taxpayer who, at time of purchase, was at least 24 years of age.
  • Qualified tuition programs, also called 529 plans, are used by many families to prepay or save for a child’s college education. Contributions to a 529 plan are not deductible, but earnings are not subject to federal tax when used for the qualified education expenses.

To help determine eligibility for these benefits, taxpayers should use tools on the Education Credits Web page and IRS Interactive Tax Assistant tool on IRS.gov.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act legislation has been passed by Congress and awaits the president's signature. The Act makes extensive changes that affect both individuals and businesses. Some key provisions of the Act are discussed below. Most provisions are effective for 2018. Many individual tax provisions sunset and revert to pre-existing law after 2025; the corporate tax rates provision is made permanent. Comparisons below are generally for 2018.

INDIVIDUAL INCOME TAX RATES

Pre-existing law. There were seven regular income tax brackets: 10%, 15%, 25%, 28%, 33%, 35%, and 39.6%.

New law. There are seven tax brackets: 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%. These provisions sunset and revert to pre-existing law after 2025.

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STANDARD DEDUCTION, ITEMIZED DEDUCTIONS, AND PERSONAL EXEMPTIONS

Pre-existing law. In general, personal (and dependency) exemptions were available for you, your spouse, and your dependents. Personal exemptions were phased out for those with higher adjusted gross incomes.

You could generally choose to take the standard deduction or to itemize deductions. Additional standard deduction amounts were available if you were blind or age 65 or older.

Itemized deductions included deductions for: medical expenses, state and local taxes, home mortgage interest, investment interest, charitable gifts, casualty and theft losses, job expenses and certain miscellaneous deductions, and other miscellaneous deductions. There was an overall limitation on itemized deductions based on the amount of your adjusted gross income.

New law. The standard deduction is significantly increased, and the additional standard deduction amounts for those over age 65 or blind are still available. The personal and dependency exemptions are no longer available.

Many itemized deductions are eliminated or restricted. The overall limitation on itemized deductions based on the amount of your adjusted gross income is eliminated.

  • The 10% of AGI floor for the deduction of medical expenses is reduced to 7.5% in 2017 and 2018 (for regular tax and alternative minimum tax).
  • The deduction for state and local taxes is limited to $10,000. An individual cannot prepay 2018 income taxes in 2017 in order to avoid the dollar limitation in 2018.
  • The deduction for mortgage interest is still available, but the benefit is reduced for some individuals, and interest on home equity loans is no longer deductible.
  • The charitable deduction is still available but modified.
  • The deduction for personal casualty losses is eliminated unless the loss is incurred in a federally declared disaster.

These provisions sunset and revert to pre-existing law after 2025.

STANDARD DEDUCTION, ITEMIZED DEDUCTIONS, AND PERSONAL EXEMPTIONS

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CHILD TAX CREDIT

Pre-existing law. The maximum child tax credit was $1,000. The child tax credit was phased out if modified adjusted gross income exceeded certain amounts. If the credit exceeded the tax liability, the child tax credit was refundable up to 15% of the amount of earned income in excess of $3,000 (the earned income threshold).

New law. The maximum child tax credit is increased to $2,000. A nonrefundable credit of $500 is available for qualifying dependents other than qualifying children. The maximum refundable amount of the credit is $1,400, indexed for inflation. The amount at which the credit begins to phase out is increased, and the earned income threshold is lowered to $2,500. The changes to the credit sunset and revert to pre-existing law after 2025.

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ALTERNATIVE MINIMUM TAX (AMT)

Under the Act, the alternative minimum tax exemptions and exemption phaseout thresholds are increased. The AMT changes sunset and revert to pre-existing law after 2025.

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KIDDIE TAX

Instead of taxing most unearned income of children at their parents' tax rates (as under pre-existing law), the Act taxes children's unearned income using the trust and estate income tax brackets. This provision sunsets and reverts to pre-existing law after 2025.

CORPORATE TAX RATES

Under the Act, corporate income is taxed at a 21% rate. The corporate alternative minimum tax is repealed.

SPECIAL PROVISIONS FOR BUSINESS INCOME OF INDIVIDUALS

Under the Act, an individual taxpayer can deduct 20% of domestic qualified business income (excludes compensation) from a partnership, S corporation, or sole proprietorship. The benefit of the deduction is phased out for specified service businesses with taxable income exceeding $157,500 ($315,000 for married filing jointly). The deduction is limited to the greater of (1) 50% of the W-2 wages of the taxpayer, or (2) the sum of (a) 25% of the W-2 wages of the taxpayer, plus (b) 2.5% of the unadjusted basis immediately after acquisition of all qualified property (certain depreciable property). This limit does not apply if taxable income does not exceed $157,500 ($315,000 for married filing jointly), and the limit is phased in for taxable income above those thresholds. This provision sunsets and reverts to pre-existing law after 2025.

RETIREMENT PLAN 

Under the Act, the contribution levels for retirement plans remain the same. However, the Act repeals the special rule permitting a recharacterization to unwind a Roth conversion.

ESTATE, GIFT, AND GENERATION-SKIPPING TRANSFER TAX

The Act doubles the gift and estate tax basic exclusion amount and the generation-skipping transfer tax exemption to about $11,200,000 in 2018. This provision sunsets and reverts to pre-existing law after 2025.

HEALTH INSURANCE INDIVIDUAL MANDATE 

The Act eliminates the requirement that individuals must be covered by a health care plan that provides at least minimum essential coverage or pay a penalty tax (the individual shared responsibility payment) for failure to maintain the coverage. The provision is effective for months beginning after December 31, 2018.

Four Ways to Double the Power of Your Tax Refund

The IRS expects that more than 70% of taxpayers will receive a refund in 2017.¹ What you do with a tax refund is up to you, but here are some ideas that may make your refund twice as valuable.

DOUBLE YOUR SAVINGS

Perhaps you'd like to use your tax refund to start an education fund for your children or grandchildren, contribute to a retirement savings account for yourself, or save for a rainy day. A financial concept known as the Rule of 72 can give you a rough estimate of how long it might take to double what you initially save. Simply divide 72 by the annual rate you hope that your money will earn. For example, if you invest your tax refund and it earns a 6% average annual rate of return, your investment might double in approximately 12 years (72 divided by 6 equals 12).

This hypothetical example of mathematical compounding is used for illustrative purposes only and does not represent the performance of any specific investment. Fees, expenses, and taxes are not considered and would reduce the performance shown if they were included

SPLIT YOUR REFUND IN TWO

If stashing your refund away in a savings account or using it to pay bills sounds unappealing, go ahead and splurge on something for yourself. But remember, you don't necessarily have to spend it all. Instead, you could put half of it toward something practical and spend the other half on something fun.

The IRS makes splitting your refund easy. When you file your income taxes and choose direct deposit for your refund, you can decide to have it deposited among two or even three accounts, in any proportion you want. Qualified accounts include savings and checking accounts, as well as IRAs (except SIMPLE IRAs), Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, health savings accounts, Archer MSAs, and TreasuryDirect® online accounts. To split your refund, you'll need to fill out IRS Form 8888 when you file your federal return.

DOUBLE DOWN ON YOUR DEBT

Using your refund to pay down credit card debt or a loan with a high interest rate could enable you to pay it off early and save on interest charges. The time and money you'll save depend on your balance, the interest rate, and other factors such as your monthly payment. Here's a hypothetical example. Let's say you have a personal loan with an $8,000 balance, a 12% fixed interest rate, and a 24-month repayment term. Your fixed monthly payment is $380. If you were to put a $4,000 refund toward paying down your principal balance, you would be able to pay off your loan in 12 months and save $780 in interest charges over the remaining loan term. Check the terms of any loan you want to prepay, though, to make sure that no prepayment penalty applies.

BE TWICE AS NICE TO OTHERS

Giving to charity has its own rewards, but Uncle Sam may also reward you for gifts you make now when you file your taxes next year. If you itemize, you may be able to deduct contributions made to a qualified charity. You can also help your favorite charity or nonprofit reap double rewards by finding out whether your gift qualifies for a match. With a matching gift program, individuals, corporations, foundations, and employers offer to match gifts the charitable organization receives, usually on a dollar-for-dollar basis. Terms and conditions apply, so contact the charitable organization or your employer's human resources department to find out more about available matching gift programs.

irs.gov

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The Trump Tax Plan: What You Need to Know

The big news today is the White House's tax plan, which proposes to cut taxes across the board, relieve millions of people from the burden of paying income taxes, and make filing much simpler and easier—all while keeping the budget in balance (or at least not making the situation worse). The question, of course, is whether it can do all it promises, and whether it stands a chance of passing.

POTENTIAL BENEFITS

For individuals and families, the plan reduces the number of tax brackets (the highest of which is currently 39.6 percent) from seven to three, at 10 percent, 25 percent, and 35 percent. It also doubles the standard deduction, to $12,000, so married couples making less than $24,000 would not pay income taxes at all. Finally, it repeals the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), which was designed to ensure that higher earners pay a minimum level of taxes, and does away with the estate tax, which taxes inheritances.

From a business perspective, the proposal also offers benefits. The plan cuts the maximum corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent, a clear potential savings. The border adjustment tax, which would have raised taxes for importers, is nowhere to be seen—another advantage for many businesses. Finally, pass-through businesses, including many small companies, would get a 15-percent tax rate.

All in all, for many taxpayers, the plan looks like a real win.

POTENTIAL COSTS

It would also come with substantial costs, however. To pay for the cuts, the administration would eliminate all tax deductions, except the mortgage, charitable giving, and retirement savings deductions. Notably, residents of states with high taxes would not be able to deduct those taxes. Depending on where you live, and how many deductions you take, you might end up paying more. 

The costs at the federal level could be significant as well. Independent experts report that the plan would raise much less revenue for the country than the current tax laws do. The administration expects lower taxes to spur faster growth, making up for the shortfall, but if not, the deficit would rise substantially. The numbers here are uncertain, as the plan includes few details so far. But it does seem reasonable to conclude that, without that additional growth, the deficit would indeed grow, perhaps by a great deal.

CAN IT PASS? 

As presented, the plan allocates much of the tax relief to the wealthy, which means it will be difficult to get votes from Democrats. Eliminating the estate tax and the AMT, in particular, will make it a hard sell. On the Republican side, the possibility that the deficit could rise substantially may alienate the Freedom Caucus and other factions focused on fiscal responsibility. The internal Republican debate is likely to be lively, and the path to passage is not clear at all.

At the end of the day, the current tax plan is perhaps best described as an opening bid, laying out themes and priorities but leaving it up to Congress to fill in the details. And that is how it should be. President Trump has presented a road map for where he wants to go. Congress now has to decide how best to get there.

Although it’s worth examining the proposal as is, it is premature to get too involved, as what (if anything) emerges as law is likely to be quite different.

Authored by Brad McMillian