Are you eligible for the American Opportunity Tax Credit?

If you paid for higher education costs in 2013, be sure to speak with your tax preparer to see if you may benefit from this credit. What is it?

The American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) modifies the Hope Tax Credit. It allows you to take a tax credit for qualified higher education costs including tuition, certain fees and course materials. See IRS Publication 970 for a complete list. It does not include room & board.

How much is it?

The credit amount is 100% on the first $2,000 of expenses and 25% of the next $2,000, so $2,500 max per year.

How long can I use it?

For four years! This is better than the Hope credit that could be used only for two years.

What exactly is a tax credit?

A tax credit reduces your tax liability dollar for dollar. It is preferable to a “deduction” which reduces your taxable income.

Can anyone claim it for higher education costs for themselves or a dependent?

If you are filing singly, your modified Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) has to be less than or equal to $80,000. For married folks filing jointly, the number is $160,000. After these income levels, the credit starts to phase out until it is no longer available.

How do I claim the credit?

Complete form 8863 and attach it to the 1040 when you file your tax return.

What if I only used 529 plan money for education expenses?

You can’t double dip. That is why I recommend that my clients use their own funds for the first $4K to make sure they can take advantage of the credit, then 529 funds after that.

Source: http://www.irs.gov/uac/American-Opportunity-Tax-Credit:-Questions-and-Answers

http://www.bankrate.com/finance/college-finance/3-ways-make-529-plan-work-1.aspx

Using a 529 Plan to Help a Grandchild Pay for College

When grandparents want to help pay for a grandchild’s education, they can choose a method that is just as beneficial to them as it is to their grandchild. With smart planning, grandparents can save taxes using a tax-preferred vehicle like a 529 plan. If they choose a 529 plan, it is important to understand the implications of having grandparents as owners instead of the child’s parents. Tax-deferred 529 plans have an account owner and a beneficiary. Typically, a parent is the account owner and a child is the beneficiary. This allows the parent to retain control over the account, preventing the child from making poor decisions with the money, like buying a new car. When determining financial aid eligibility, it is usually better for a parent to be the owner of the 529 account. While this calculation can get complicated, in general, parents are expected to contribute 5.64% of their eligible assets annually towards their child’s tuition. Retirement assets are not counted. The student is expected to contribute 20% of her assets. This is why it is typically recommended to spend down the child’s assets first, if they have any. Grandparents’ assets don’t count at all. So why would you not have the grandparent set up a 529?

The catch is this: If a distribution is taken from a grandparent owned 529, the distribution amount needs to be reported as income on the student’s financial aid form the following year. This can reduce the student’s financial aid amount by up to 50% of the distribution amount. So if $10K was distributed, the aid amount can be reduced by as much as $5K. If financial aid is not a possibility in your situation, this nuance doesn’t matter. If it is a possibility, hold off on taking distributions from a grandparent owned 529 until the last FASFA form is filed, typically the middle of the student’s junior year.

Another way for grandparents to contribute is to simply gift money (within gifting limits) to the parents to be used for college. It will affect the aid amount since it is the parent’s asset as discussed, but not by much. Here are some more pros and cons to having a grandparent owned 529. Be sure to consult with your financial and tax advisor to understand what is best for your specific situation.

The Dark Side of UTMA Accounts

With this next post, I wanted to share an issue I have seen a couple times within the last few months. Parents have called asking how to postpone their child from receiving a UTMA account at age 18. The answer is, you cannot postpone the inevitable. Minor children cannot legally hold mutual funds, stocks, bonds and life insurance policies. If parents want to transfer these to their children, they have the option to set up a UTMA (or UGMA) account for them. The issue is that this money needs to be handed over to the child at the age of majority (age 18 or 21 depending on the state).

This may seem in the distant future when you are holding a newborn in your arms, but the reality is that the age of majority, whether 18 or 21, is still incredibly young. Not surprisingly, there are some young adults that are just not ready or responsible enough to receive a lump sum.

UTMA funds are irrevocable gifts. The article below is a good overall summary of UTMA’s. It mentions that one option is to spend the money for the benefit of the child before the age of majority. You would need to use the money for items other than parental obligations and work with a qualified accountant.

http://www.finaid.org/savings/ugma.phtml

An alternative vehicle for parents looking to gift assets to their children is a 529 account. It is often the one I recommend. While it also has its limitations, when presented with the pros and cons of each, parents often choose the 529.

I recommend meeting with a financial planner to review your specific situation and see which vehicle may be better for you.