Who Can — And Who Should — Take the American Opportunity Credit?

Who Can — And Who Should — Take the American Opportunity Credit?

If you have a child in college, you may be eligible to claim the American Opportunity credit on your 2016 income tax return. If, however, your income is too high, you won’t qualify for the credit — but your child might. There’s one potential downside: If your dependent child claims the credit, you must forgo your dependency exemption for him or her. And the child can’t take the exemption. The limits The maximum American Opportunity credit, per student, is $2,500 per year for the first four years of post-secondary education. It equals 100% of the first $2,000 of qualified expenses, plus 25% of the next $2,000 of such expenses. The ability to claim the American Opportunity credit begins to phase out when modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) enters the applicable phaseout range ($160,000–$180,000 for joint filers, $80,000–$90,000 for other filers). It’s completely eliminated when MAGI exceeds the top of the range. Running the numbers If your American Opportunity credit is partially or fully phased out, it’s a good idea to assess whether there’d be a tax benefit for the family overall if your child claimed the credit. As noted, this would come at the price of your having to forgo your dependency exemption for the child. So it’s important to run the numbers. Dependency exemptions are also subject to a phaseout, so you might lose the benefit of your exemption regardless of whether your child claims the credit. The 2016 adjusted gross income (AGI) thresholds for the exemption phaseout are $259,400 (singles), $285,350 (heads of households), $311,300 (married filing jointly) and $155,650 (married filing separately). If your exemption is...
Prepaid Tuition vs. College Savings: Which Type of 529 Plan is Better?

Prepaid Tuition vs. College Savings: Which Type of 529 Plan is Better?

Section 529 plans provide a tax-advantaged way to help pay for college expenses. Here are just a few of the benefits: • Although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. • Some states offer tax incentives for contributing in the form of deductions or credits. • The plans usually offer high contribution limits, and there are no income limits for contributing. Prepaid tuition plans With this type of 529 plan, if your contract is for four years of tuition, tuition is guaranteed regardless of its cost at the time the beneficiary actually attends the school. This can provide substantial savings if you invest when the child is still very young. One downside is that there’s uncertainty in how benefits will be applied if the beneficiary attends a different school. Another is that the plan doesn’t cover costs other than tuition, such as room and board. Savings plan This type of 529 plan can be used to pay a student’s expenses at most post-secondary educational institutions. Distributions used to pay qualified expenses (such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, computer equipment, software, Internet service and, generally, room and board) are income-tax-free for federal purposes and typically for state purposes as well, thus making the tax deferral a permanent savings. The biggest downside may be that you don’t have direct control over investment decisions; you’re limited to the options the plan offers. Additionally, for funds already in the plan, you can make changes to your investment options only twice during the year or when you change beneficiaries. But each time you make a new contribution to a...
How to Max Out Education-Related Tax Breaks

How to Max Out Education-Related Tax Breaks

If there was a college student in your family last year, you may be eligible for some valuable tax breaks on your 2015 return. To max out your education-related breaks, you need to see which ones you’re eligible for and then claim the one(s) that will provide the greatest benefit. In most cases you can take only one break per student, and, for some breaks, only one per tax return. Credits vs. deductions Tax credits can be especially valuable because they reduce taxes dollar-for-dollar; deductions reduce only the amount of income that’s taxed. A couple of credits are available for higher education expenses: 1. The American Opportunity credit — up to $2,500 per year per student for qualifying expenses for the first four years of postsecondary education. 2. The Lifetime Learning credit — up to $2,000 per tax return for postsecondary education expenses, even beyond the first four years. But income-based phaseouts apply to these credits. If you’re eligible for the American Opportunity credit, it will likely provide the most tax savings. If you’re not, the Lifetime Learning credit isn’t necessarily the best alternative. Despite the dollar-for-dollar tax savings credits offer, you might be better off deducting up to $4,000 of qualified higher education tuition and fees. Because it’s an above-the-line deduction, it reduces your adjusted gross income, which could provide additional tax benefits. But income-based limits also apply to the tuition and fees deduction. How much can your family save? Keep in mind that, if you don’t qualify for breaks for your child’s higher education expenses because your income is too high, your child might. Many additional rules...