How to Save for a Child’s College Education

A frequently asked question is, “How might I save for a child’s college education?” The answer depends on how much the education is expected to cost and how much time is left until the child heads off to college or university.

The amount of funds that will be required will depend upon whether your child will be attending a local college, attending a local college and then transferring into a university, or going straight to the university. If attending college locally, you generally only need to be concerned about tuition, and the child can live at home, whereas attending a university, unless it is local, will add the cost of housing and food on top of substantially higher university tuition. Another factor is whether the student will leave school after obtaining a bachelor’s degree or will be doing graduate studies for an advanced degree.

When the time comes, your child may qualify for a scholarship or grant, but you can’t depend on that when working out a college savings plan.

The federal tax code has two beneficial savings plans that can be used. In both plans, there is no tax benefit to making any contributions. The benefit is that growth due to appreciation in investments, if any, and earnings (dividends and interest) are tax-free when withdrawn for qualified education expenses. Thus, the sooner the plan is started, the better, because it will have more years to grow in value.

More tax benefit is gained by front-loading the contributions and thus having a larger amount on which to compound the growth and earnings. You should also be aware that anyone, not just you, can make a contribution to the child’s college savings plans. So if your child has any well-heeled grandparents, other relatives or friends who would like to help, they can also contribute.

The two savings plans currently available for college savings are the Coverdell Education Savings Account and the Qualified Tuition Plan, most commonly referred to as a Sec. 529 Plan (529 denotes the section of the tax law code that governs it).

Coverdell Education Savings Account – This plan only allows up to $2,000 in contributions per year, and although it allows withdraws for kindergarten education and above, the contribution limitations generally rule it out as a practical method for college savings.

Sec 529 Plan – This approach is likely your best option. State-run Sec. 529 plan benefits are limited to postsecondary education, but they allow significantly larger amounts to be contributed; multiple people can each contribute up to the gift tax limit each year without being subjected to gift tax reporting. This limit is $14,000 for 2017, and it is periodically adjusted for inflation; in 2018, it increases to $15,000. A special rule allows contributors to make up to five years of contributions in advance (for a total of $70,000 in 2017).

Sec. 529 plans allow taxpayers to put away larger amounts of money, limited only by the contributor’s gift tax concerns and the contribution limits of the intended plan. There are no limits on the number of contributors, and there are no income or age limitations. The maximum amount that can be contributed per beneficiary (the intended student) is based on the projected cost of college education and will vary between the states’ plans. Some states base their maximum on an in-state four-year education, but others use the cost of the most expensive schools in the U.S., including graduate studies. Most have limits in excess of $200,000, with some topping $370,000. Generally, additional contributions cannot be made once an account reaches that level, but that doesn’t prevent the account from continuing to grow.

When the time comes for college, the distributions will be part earnings/growth in value and part contributions. The contribution part is never taxable, and the earnings part is tax free if used to pay for qualified college expenses. In addition, the portion of the distribution that represents the return on the contributions and is used for qualified education expenses qualifies for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be as much as $2,500, provided your income level does not phase it out.

For additional details or assistance in planning for a child’s higher education, please give us a call.

Education Tax Credit Nuances — Don’t Leave Money on the Table

There are actually two higher-education tax credits. The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) provides up to $2,500 worth of credit for each student, 40% of which is refundable. The credit is equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of college tuition and qualified expenses and 25% of the next $2,000. The AOTC only applies to the first 4 years of post-secondary education.

The other credit is the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC), which only provides a maximum $2,000 of credit (20% of up to $10,000 of eligible expenses) per family. None of it is refundable, meaning it can only be used to offset the taxpayer’s tax liability, and any additional credit amount is lost.

When it comes to these credits, it is easy to leave money on the table. Here are the reasons why:

  1. Many students attend local colleges for the first two years and then transfer to a university for the remainder of their education. Knowing the university tuition will be higher, some parents take the LLC and wait on the AOTC, thinking they can use it in years with higher tuition and get a larger credit. What they don’t realize is that the AOTC credit is only good for the first four years of post-secondary education. Thus, it is always better to claim the AOTC in the first four years.
  2. Parents don’t realize what constitutes a year of post-secondary education. Most students start college in the autumn after their May or June graduation from high school. Thus, for them, the first four years of post-secondary education actually span parts of five calendar years, and as a result, the student will qualify for the AOTC in five calendar years. With careful planning, students can qualify for the full $2,500 of the refundable credit in all five calendar years.
  3. A special rule allows the tuition for an academic period that begins in the first three months of the next year to be paid in advance and thus increase the amount of tuition qualifying for the credit in the year the tuition is paid. This allows for planning when to make tuition payments to maximize credits, especially in the first partial calendar year.
    Example: Cameron just graduated from high school and will be beginning college in September. Her tuition and credit-qualifying expenses for the semester covering the last four months of the year and January of the next year are $1,500. Her mother, Tricia, is aware of the 3-month rule, and in December she prepays Cameron’s $1,500 tuition for the semester beginning February 1 of the next year, bringing the qualifying expenses to a total of $3,000. The AOTC is equal to 100% of the first $2,000 of qualifying expenses and 25% of the next $2,000. Thus the AOTC for Cameron is $2,250 ($2,000 + 25% of $1,000). Tricia could increase the credit for the year to the full $2,500 maximum by purchasing $1,000 worth of course materials needed for “meaningful attendance or enrollment” in Cameron’s course of study.
  4. Qualifying expenses other than tuition are often overlooked, especially in light of a recent tax regulation change that specifies for the AOTC that qualifying expenses include course materials needed for “meaningful attendance or enrollment” whether purchased from the school or an outside vendor. Previously, only course material purchased from the school qualified (and this is still the rule for the Lifetime Learning Credit). This is a significant change and opens up the possibilities of including expenses not previously allowed.
  5. Taxpayers also often overlook another very important fact: Whoever claims the tax exemption for the student gets to claim the education credit even if someone else paid for the tuition and qualified expenses.
    Example: Suppose Cameron’s Uncle Lee pays her tuition but Tricia, her mother, claims Cameron on her tax return. Tricia is the one who qualifies for and receives the credit.
  6. What many also overlook is the fact that the AOTC is phased out for higher-income taxpayers based on their adjusted gross income (AGI). It phases out for AGIs between $160,000 and $180,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, and between $80,000 and $90,000 for others. The LLC phases out a little quicker than the AOTC: between $112,000 and $132,000 for joint filers and between $56,000 and $66,000 for others. As an exception, married taxpayers filing separately aren’t eligible to claim either credit. (Note: the LLC phaseout ranges are adjusted for inflation annually, and the one quoted is for 2017.)
    Thus, in cases when the parent claiming the student has an AGI above the phaseout range, regardless of who paid the tuition and qualified expanses, no one will be able to claim the credit. So it is important to consider the income of the individual who is claiming the student when there is an option of who claims the child, such as in cases of divorced parents.
  7. Because of gift tax issues, a person other than the one qualifying for the credit, such as a grandparent, may hesitate to volunteer to pay a tuition expense. Where payments are made directly to the educational institution, they are excluded from gift tax rules. However, depending on the amounts involved, there may be a gift tax reporting requirement if a monetary gift is given to the student or the individual who is claiming the credit and then the gift money is used to pay tuition.
  8. A question often arises as to whether tuition payments to a trade school or foreign university will count toward the education credit. To qualify for the credit, the tuition must be paid to any accredited public, nonprofit or proprietary post-secondary institution eligible to participate in the student aid programs administered by the Department of Education. This would rule out foreign educational institutions because they don’t qualify for the student aid program administered by the Department of Education, but it would generally include most accredited public nonprofit or privately owned, profit-making post-secondary educational institutions in the U.S.

As you can see, there are several nuances associated with the education credits that must be considered. Please call this office if you need assistance with education planning or the application of the education tax credits to your particular circumstances.

The IRS Has Become More Liberal With College Expenses

Computers and the Internet have become integral parts of education by providing access to online courses, learning and research. It is virtually impossible to be enrolled in postsecondary education without a computer, which is needed to complete written assignments, type reports, prepare theses and access the Internet.

Recent tax regulations have acknowledged the fact that computers, peripheral equipment, certain types of nonentertainment software, Internet access and related services are essential for postsecondary education. Thus, when those items are used primarily by a beneficiary of a qualified state tuition (Sec 529) plan, the cost of the items can be reimbursed from the plan’s funds, tax-free.

In addition, the regulations for the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) have been modified (effective in 2016) to clarify that the AOTC’s definition of qualified tuition and related expenses includes books, supplies and any other equipment that is required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible institution. For this purpose, the materials must be needed for “meaningful attendance or enrollment” in a course of study; they can be purchased from the institution or an outside vendor.

Computers are not specifically listed in the new AOTC regulations, but the wording certainly implies that a computer qualifies as long as it is required for meaningful attendance. This change is so new that there is no precedent for how the IRS will apply the regulations to computers, as the regulations do not specifically include them. To be on the safe side, each student seeking the credit should get an instructor to write a letter (on school letterhead) stating, “A computer is required for meaningful attendance.

For more information regarding which education expenses qualify for Sec 529 plan reimbursements or for the AOTC, please give this office a call.