Many businesses provide education fringe benefits so their employees can improve their skills and gain additional knowledge. An employee can receive, on a tax-free basis, up to $5,250 each year from his or her employer for educational assistance under a “qualified educational assistance program.”
For this purpose, “education” means any form of instruction or training that improves or develops an individual’s capabilities. It doesn’t matter if it’s job-related or part of a degree program. This includes employer-provided education assistance for graduate-level courses, including those normally taken by an individual pursuing a program leading to a business, medical, law or other advanced academic or professional degree.
The educational assistance must be provided under a separate written plan that’s publicized to your employees, and must meet a number of conditions, including nondiscrimination requirements. In other words, it can’t discriminate in favor of highly compensated employees. In addition, not more than 5% of the amounts paid or incurred by the employer for educational assistance during the year may be provided for individuals who (including their spouses or dependents) who own 5% or more of the business.
No deduction or credit can be taken by the employee for any amount excluded from the employee’s income as an education assistance benefit.
If you pay more than $5,250 for educational benefits for an employee during the year, he or she must generally pay tax on the amount over $5,250. Your business should include the amount in income in the employee’s wages. However, in addition to, or instead of applying, the $5,250 exclusion, an employer can satisfy an employee’s educational expenses, on a nontaxable basis, if the educational assistance is job-related. To qualify as job-related, the educational assistance must:
- Maintain or improve skills required for the employee’s then-current job, or
- Comply with certain express employer-imposed conditions for continued employment.
“Job-related” employer educational assistance isn’t subject to a dollar limit. To be job-related, the education can’t qualify the employee to meet the minimum educational requirements for qualification in his or her employment or other trade or business.
Educational assistance meeting the above “job-related” rules is excludable from an employee’s income as a working condition fringe benefit.
In addition to education assistance, some employers offer student loan repayment assistance as a recruitment and retention tool. Recent COVID-19 relief laws may provide your employees with tax-free benefits. Contact us to learn more about setting up an education assistance or student loan repayment plan at your business.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
For many people, an important goal of estate planning is to leave a legacy for their children, grandchildren and future generations. And what better way to do that than to help provide for their educational needs? A 529 plan can be a highly effective tool for funding tuition and other educational expenses on a tax-advantaged basis. But when the plan’s owner (typically a parent or grandparent) dies, there’s no guarantee that subsequent owners will continue to use it to fulfill the original owner’s vision.
To create a family education fund that lives on for generations, a carefully designed trust may be the best solution. But trusts have a significant drawback: Unlike 529 plans, the earnings of which are tax-exempt if used for qualified education expenses, trusts are subject to some of the highest federal income tax rates in the tax code.
One strategy for gaining the best of both worlds is to establish a family education trust that invests in one or more 529 plans.
529 plans are state-sponsored investment accounts that permit parents, grandparents and other family members to make substantial cash contributions. Contributions are nondeductible, but the funds grow tax-free and earnings may be withdrawn tax-free for federal income tax purposes provided they’re used for qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and some room and board at most accredited colleges and universities and certain vocational schools. Contributions to 529 plans are removed from your taxable estate and shielded from gift taxes by your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption or annual exclusions.
In addition to the risk that a subsequent owner will use the funds for noneducational purposes, disadvantages of 529 plans include relatively limited investment choices and an inability to invest assets other than cash.
Holding a 529 plan in a trust
Establishing a trust to hold one or more 529 plans provides several significant benefits:
- It allows you to maintain tax-advantaged education funds indefinitely (depending on applicable state law) to benefit future generations and keeps the funds out of the hands of those who would use them for other purposes.
- It allows you to establish guidelines on which family members are eligible for educational assistance, direct how the funds will be used or distributed in the event they’re no longer needed for educational purposes, and appoint trustees and successor trustees to oversee the trust.
- It can accept noncash contributions and hold a variety of investments and assets outside 529 plans.
A trust may also use funds held outside of 529 plans for purposes other than education, such as paying medical expenses or nonqualified living expenses.
If you’re interested in setting up a family education trust to hold 529 plans and other investments, contact us. We can help you design a trust that maximizes educational benefits, minimizes taxes and offers the flexibility you need to shape your educational legacy.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
Attending college is one of the biggest investments that parents and students ever make. If you or your child (or grandchild) attends (or plans to attend) an institution of higher learning, you may be eligible for tax breaks to help foot the bill.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act, which was enacted recently, made some changes to the tax breaks. Here’s a rundown of what has changed.
Deductions vs. credits
Before the new law, there were tax breaks available for qualified education expenses including the Tuition and Fees Deduction, the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
Tax credits are generally better than tax deductions. The difference? A tax deduction reduces your taxable income while a tax credit reduces the amount of taxes you owe on a dollar-for-dollar basis.
First, let’s look at the deduction
For 2020, the Tuition and Fees Deduction could be up to $4,000 at lower income levels or up to $2,000 at middle income levels. If your 2020 modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) allows you to be eligible, you can claim the deduction whether you itemize or not. Here are the income thresholds:
- For 2020, a taxpayer with a MAGI of up to $65,000 ($130,000 for married filing jointly) could deduct qualified expenses up to $4,000.
- For 2020, a taxpayer with a MAGI between $65,001 and $80,000 ($130,001 and $160,000 for married filing jointly) could deduct up to $2,000.
- For 2020, the allowable 2020 deduction was phased out and was zero if your MAGI was more than $80,000 ($160,000 for married filing jointly).
As you’ll see below, the Tuition and Fees Deduction is not available after the 2020 tax year.
Two credits aligned
Before the new law, an unfavorable income phase-out rule applied to the Lifetime Learning Credit, which can be worth up to $2,000 per tax return annually. For 2021 and beyond, the new law aligns the phase-out rule for the Lifetime Learning Credit with the more favorable phase-out rule for the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be worth up to $2,500 per student each year. The CAA also repeals the Tuition and Fees Deduction for 2021 and later years. Basically, the law trades the old-law write-off for the more favorable new-law Lifetime Learning Credit phase-out rule.
Under the CAA, both the Lifetime Learning Credit and the American Opportunity Tax Credit are phased out for 2021 and beyond between a MAGI of $80,001 and $90,000 for unmarried individuals ($160,001 and $180,000 for married couples filing jointly). Before the new law, the Lifetime Learning Credit was phased out for 2020 between a MAGI of $59,001 and $69,000 for unmarried individuals ($118,001 and $138,000 married couples filing jointly).
Best for you
Talk with us about which of the two remaining education tax credits is the most beneficial in your situation. Each of them has its own requirements. There are also other education tax opportunities you may be able to take advantage of, including a Section 529 tuition plan and a Coverdell Education Savings Account.
© 2021 Covenant CPA
Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students are going back to school this fall, either remotely, in-person or under a hybrid schedule. In any event, parents may be eligible for certain tax breaks to help defray the cost of education.
Here is a summary of some of the tax breaks available for education.
1. Higher education tax credits. Generally, you may be able to claim either one of two tax credits for higher education expenses — but not both.
- With the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), you can save a maximum of $2,500 from your tax bill for each full-time college or grad school student. This applies to qualified expenses including tuition, room and board, books and computer equipment and other supplies. But the credit is phased out for moderate-to-upper income taxpayers. No credit is allowed if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).
- The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is similar to the AOTC, but there are a few important distinctions. In this case, the maximum credit is $2,000 instead of $2,500. Furthermore, this is the overall credit allowed to a taxpayer regardless of the number of students in the family. However, the LLC is also phased out under income ranges even lower than the AOTC. You can’t claim the credit if your MAGI is $68,000 or more ($136,000 or more if you file a joint return).
For these reasons, the AOTC is generally preferable to the LLC. But parents have still another option.
2. Tuition-and-fees deduction. As an alternative to either of the credits above, parents may claim an above-the-line deduction for tuition and related fees. This deduction is either $4,000 or $2,000, depending on the taxpayer’s MAGI, before it is phased out. No deduction is allowed for MAGI above $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for joint filers.
The tuition-and-fees deduction, which has been extended numerous times, is currently scheduled to expire after 2020. However, it’s likely to be revived again by Congress.
In addition to these tax breaks, there are other ways to save and pay for college on a tax advantaged basis. These include using Section 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. There are limits on contributions to these saving vehicles.
Note: Thanks to a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a 529 plan can now be used to pay for up to $10,000 annually for a child’s tuition at a private or religious elementary or secondary school.
Typically, parents are able to take advantage of one or more of these tax breaks, even though some benefits are phased out above certain income levels. Contact us to maximize the tax breaks for your children’s education.
© 2020 Covenant CPA
There are several ways to save for your child’s or grandchild’s education, including with a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA). Although for federal tax purposes there’s no upfront deduction for contributions made to an ESA, the earnings on the contributions grow tax-free. In addition, no tax is due when the funds in the account are distributed, to the extent the amounts withdrawn don’t exceed the child’s qualified education expenses.
Qualified expenses include higher education tuition, fees, books and room, as well as elementary and secondary school expenses.
The annual limit that can be contributed to a child’s ESA is $2,000 per year — from all contributors for all ESAs for the same child. The maximum dollar amount that any individual can contribute is phased out if the contributor’s adjusted gross income (with certain modifications) exceeds $95,000 ($190,000 for married joint filers).
However, this phaseout is easily avoided. A child can contribute to his or her own ESA, so a parent or other person whose contribution may be limited by the phaseout rule can give the money to an ESA as custodian for the child. Under those circumstances, the child is considered to be the contributor and, if the child’s adjusted gross income is below $95,000, the phaseout won’t apply.
Contributions that exceed $2,000 in total for a child for a year are subject to a 6% penalty tax until the excess (plus earnings) are withdrawn.
How long can you make ESA contributions? They can be made until a child reaches age 18 (but this age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs who requires additional time to complete his or her education). A beneficiary doesn’t have to be your own child.
Taking money out
Withdrawals from an ESA during a year that exceed the child’s qualified education expenses for that year are included in the child’s income (to the extent of the earnings portion of the distribution) and are also subject to an additional 10% tax.
Tax-free transfers or rollovers of account balances from an ESA benefiting one beneficiary to another account benefiting another person are allowed, if the new beneficiary hasn’t reached 30, and is a member of the family of the old beneficiary. (The age limit doesn’t apply to a beneficiary with special needs.)
If you’re interested in discussing a Coverdell ESA, or other education planning options, please contact us.
© 2019 Covenant CPA
Section 529 plans are a popular education-funding tool because of tax and other benefits. Two types are available: 1) prepaid tuition plans, and 2) savings plans. And one of these plans got even better under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).
Enjoy valuable benefits
529 plans provide a tax-advantaged way to help pay for qualifying education expenses. First and foremost, although contributions aren’t deductible for federal purposes, plan assets can grow tax-deferred. In addition, some states offer tax incentives for contributing in the form of deductions or credits.
But that’s not all. 529 plans also usually offer high contribution limits. And there are no income limits for contributing.
Lock in current tuition rates
With a 529 prepaid tuition 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.
Fund more than just college tuition
A 529 savings plan can be used to pay a student’s expenses at most postsecondary 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.
In addition, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expands the definition of qualified expenses to generally include elementary and secondary school tuition. However, tax-free distributions used for such tuition are limited to $10,000 per year.
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 contribution to a 529 savings plan, you can select a different option for that contribution, regardless of how many times you contribute throughout the year. And every 12 months you can make a tax-free rollover to a different 529 plan for the same child.
Picking your plan
Both prepaid tuition plans and savings plans offer attractive benefits. We can help you determine which one is a better fit for you or explore other tax-advantaged education-funding options. Contact us at 205-345-9898.
© 2018 Covenant CPA