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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.