I’m seeing some confusion about this from tax clients this season, so I realized it’s worth explaining a few of the basics regarding education expenses, 529 college savings plan/ Coverdell ESA distributions, and tax credits and deductions.
There are five main tax benefits used to defray the cost of education:
- American Opportunity Tax Credit
- Lifetime Learning Credit
- Deduction for Qualified Education Expenses
- Student Loan Interest Deduction
- 529 or Coverdell Plan Contributions and Distributions
The American Opportunity Tax Credit reduces your federal tax bill by up to $2,500 per year for each eligible college student for whom you pay qualified tuition expenses. It can be claimed on behalf of an undergraduate for four years. And if you have more than one child in college at the same time, you can claim for each eligible child. The amount of the credit is calculated as 100% of the first $2,000 in qualified tuition and fees costs paid, plus 25% of the next $2,000 paid for such fees. For lower income taxpayers who don’t owe $2,500 in tax, up to $1,000 of the credit is refundable. Source: Coordinating 529 Plan Withdrawals With The American Opportunity Tax Credit
But there are limitations here: The credit phases out if you make too much money, you can’t claim any portion that was already paid with Pell Grant money, and you cannot claim the AOTC (or any of the education benefits) based on expenses that were also used to calculate the tax-free portion of a distribution from a 529 college savings or prepaid plan, or a Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA).
The Lifetime Learning Credit is nonrefundable but can reduce the amount of tax you owe by up to $2,000. There is no limit to the number of years this credit can be claimed, but eligible expenses are only those charged by the school for attendance that were not paid for with the Pell Grant or 529 college savings or Coverdell ESAs. Source: http://finance.zacks.com/can-claim-education-tax-deduction-used-pell-grant-pay-5114.html
The Tuition and Fees Tax Deduction is not allowable if you take one of the educational credits — and it’s usually not as good a deal. But if you don’t qualify for one of the credits (which frequently happens, if your income is too high or you’re not able to take your dependent as an exemption), this deduction can be used to lower your taxable income by up to $4,000. You do not have to itemize deductions to get this deduction; instead, it adjusts your reported income. Obviously, lowering your income is not as good as reducing your tax with a credit, but it’s still a nice benefit. As with the others, the deduction is limited to the portion of expenses not paid for with the Pell Grant or 529 college savings or Coverdell ESAs. Source: http://finance.zacks.com/can-claim-education-tax-deduction-used-pell-grant-pay-5114.html
The Student Loan Interest Deduction is something that may be a benefit in future years — but be careful: predatory for-profit colleges and universities are constantly touting this benefit as a reason to take out large loans, but the benefits often do not come to fruition. For one, there’s a pretty low limit as to how much you can deduct each year — only $2,500 — and if you exceed that limit, the balance does not carry forward. That college probably also promised you that getting a degree would make you much more valuable to society, and your income would skyrocket — but the loan interest deduction phases out pretty quickly as your income rises, so chances are, if they’re right… most of this interest will not end up being deductible. Source: https://www.irs.gov/taxtopics/tc456.html
529 College Savings Plans and Coverdell Educational Savings Accounts are both great vehicles to saving for college. Similar to a Roth IRA, these contributions are not deductible at the federal level, but all of the principal, as well as the interest, dividends and capital gains — all growth — is non-taxable upon distribution if used for qualified education expenses. (This is pretty fantastic.) Add to it that most states will allow a deduction for contributions, and you’ve got a no-brainer for college savings. The important bits to remember here are: each state has pretty strict rules about what qualifies as a plan; each state decides whether the withdrawal is free of income tax or simply deductible from income; and — here’s the theme of my post — if you take a distribution to pay for educational expenses, you may not also take one of the other educational tax benefits above. 529 plans and ESAs are pretty complicated; make sure to compare and contrast, and understand the potential penalties, before signing up. Source: http://www.360financialliteracy.org/Topics/Paying-for-Education/College-Savings-Options/529-Plans-vs.-Coverdell-Education-Savings-Accounts
I want to recommend two websites with excellent examples of how to combine these plans to get the best overall tax benefits. Scroll part-way through to see the “example” sections, and see if any of these scenarios come close to matching your own situation. Have fun!