Tax Breaks for College Expenses

Tax breaks for college expenses

If you're a college student (or the parent of one), you should know about some key tax breaks that are available to you when you do your taxes.

Tax Credits

There are two tax credits for higher education. They're targeted at different types of students, so it pays to know the differences.

American Opportunity Credit

This credit is for students who are earning their undergraduate degrees. The credit is specifically limited to those expenses incurred in the first four years of college. The credit is worth $2,500; the really good news is that $1,000 of that is refundable, meaning you could get that back as a refund even if you don't owe any taxes. There's an $80,000 income ceiling for single filers to qualify for the credit ($160,000 if you're married filing jointly). If income is more than those amounts, the credit starts to decrease. The credit is available through the 2017 tax year.

Lifetime Learning Credit

Where the American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, the Lifetime Learning Credit has a wider availability. This credit can be used for graduate school, undergraduate expenses, even professional or vocational courses. Plus, there's no limit to how many years you can claim it.

This credit, however, is nonrefundable, which means it's limited to your tax liability. For example, if you qualified for the full $2,000 Lifetime Learning Credit, but had a tax liability of $500 for the year, you'd get a credit for $500.

Credits vs. deductions: What's the difference?

Tax breaks for higher education come in two basic forms: credits and deductions. Credits reduce the amount of tax that you owe on your tax return. Deductions reduce the amount of income that's considered taxable: less income taxed means less income tax.


The two deductions below are not available if you are filing married filing separately, or if someone else - such as a parent - claims you as a dependent on their return. Parents can still claim the deductions, provided they paid the expenses.

Tuition and Fees Deduction

If you don't qualify for one of the education credits, you may still be able to deduct your tuition and fees. The deduction can cut your taxable income by up to $4,000. It's taken as an adjustment to income, which means you can claim this deduction even if you don't itemize deductions. The income limit for this deduction is $80,000 for single taxpayers, or $160,000 for married filing jointly.

Student Loan Interest Deduction

This deduction helps to defray the interest you have on your student loans. This deduction can reduce your taxable income by up to $2,500. Like the tuition and fees deduction, it's taken as an adjustment to income, so you can claim it even if you don't itemize deductions.

One Per Customer, Please

One thing to remember, though: for each student, you can claim either the American Opportunity Credit, or the Lifetime Learning Credit, or the tuition and fees deduction. The IRS won't let you take more than one of these particular tax breaks for the same person on the same return.

But: Parents claiming two or more college kids as dependents on their return can claim one of these tax breaks for one student and another for a different student. You can still take the student loan interest deduction even if you're claiming one of the other tax breaks.

SC-Withholding-Amounts-will-Change-for-2017In January 2017, South Carolina is updating Withholding Tax tables for the first time in 25 years. This is a big change to South Carolina's Withholding process, and we want you to be ready!

Are you an individual taxpayer? No action is necessary to prepare for this change. Beginning in 2017, you may notice a very small increase in your paychecks throughout the year which will result in a slightly smaller South Carolina income tax refund in 2018.

Employers who process their own payrolls will need to make sure your withholding tables are updated for these changes before you run your first 2017 payroll!


What If I Can't Pay My Taxes? Here's What You Should Do!If you don't have the cash to pay your taxes and are unable to borrow the money from a relative or friend, you still have a few options. You can pay by credit card, ask for a short-term extension, propose an installment payment agreement or an offer in compromise to the IRS, or declare bankruptcy if you qualify. If you ignore your tax bill entirely, not only will interest and penalties accrue, but the IRS's tax enforcement and collection powers include the ability to record liens on your property and levy to secure or satisfy such liens.

If you're short on cash, you can pay your taxes with a credit card. This will allow your tax bill to be paid on time. Therefore, you'll avoid penalties and interest for late payment of taxes. However, the interest rate that the credit card company charges may be higher than what the IRS charges on late payments. You can make credit card payments through certain tax software programs or by calling (888) 272-9829. A fee may apply.

A short-term extension will give you up to 120 days to pay. No fee is charged, but a late payment penalty plus interest will apply.An installment agreement is a monthly payment plan with the IRS. You enter into an installment payment agreement by informing the IRS that you are unable to make full payment of taxes. Your tax liability may be spread out over three years, and payments can be made through payroll deduction. You will generally be expected to pay the maximum installment amount that you can afford. You will not avoid interest and penalties with this payment method, but you will avoid more severe collection action. A one-time fee is charged to establish the installment agreement.

An offer in compromise is a negotiated settlement between you and the IRS, whereby the IRS agrees to accept a lesser figure from you in full satisfaction of your tax debt. You must meet certain criteria to qualify for offer-in-compromise treatment. Generally, an offer will not be accepted by the IRS if the IRS believes that the liability can be paid in full or through an installment agreement.

New HSA Amounts for 2017The IRS issued the inflation-adjusted figures for calendar year 2017 for the annual contribution limits for health savings accounts (HSAs) and the minimum deductible amounts and maximum out-of-pocket expense amounts for high-deductible health plans. Individuals who participate in a health plan with a high deductible are permitted a deduction for contributions to HSAs set up to help pay their medical expenses. The contribution deduction limit is subject to an annual inflation adjustment. For 2017, the annual limit on deductible contributions is $3,400 for individuals with self-only coverage (a $50 increase from 2016) and $6,750 for family coverage (unchanged from 2016).

To be eligible to contribute to an HSA, an individual must participate in a "high deductible health plan," which is a health plan with an annual deductible that is not less than a certain limit each year and for which the annual out-of-pocket expenses, including deductibles, co-payments, and other amounts, but excluding premiums, does not exceed a certain limit each year. These limits are also subject to annual inflation adjustments. For 2017, the lower limit on the annual deductible under a high-deductible plan is $1,300 for self-only coverage and $2,600 for family coverage, the same as for 2016. The upper limit for out-of-pocket expenses is $6,550 for self-only coverage and $13,100 for family coverage, both unchanged from 2016.

What to have in place when you have college children.Those of you with adult children in college, quite naturally, are often reluctant to think about what might happen to your kids in an emergency. But it's important for you to have a plan in place in the unlikely event that you will need to make medical or financial decisions on behalf of your college-student children.

You need to take three steps to ensure you are legally authorized to take action for your children in the event of an emergency: becoming designated as your child's health care agent through a health care proxy or health care durable power of attorney; being granted access to your child's financial information through a financial durable power of attorney; and being listed as ICE (In Case of Emergency) contacts on your children's cellphones.

Once college students reach the age of majority (18 in most states), they are legally considered adults, and their parents are no longer entitled to see their medical or financial records or able to make decisions on their behalf. You may wrongly assume that if you're paying for all or part of your children's tuition, that you are allowed to access your children's documents. But the legal truth is once students attain the age of legal majority, they have a legal right to privacy and the right to govern their own lives. That's why it's so important that you and your children discuss ways you can act on their behalf should an emergency happen.

The health care proxy or health care durable power of attorney: This is a legal document by which a person authorizes a parent, other relative, or trusted family friend, to serve as his or her health care agent. It gives the agent the authority to make medical care decisions and access medical records for a person should he or she become incapacitated. An individual can only name one other person at a time to serve as health care agent. However, individuals can be successively named. Students should also sign what is known as a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996) release that gives medical practitioners permission to share information with those named on it. If possible, students should carry a copy of the proxy in a wallet. It is also advisable to have a signed electronic copy available to be emailed to any emergency room.

Financial durable power of attorney: A financial durable power of attorney is a document by which someone gives access to his or her financial information to a specific person, who is called the "named attorney in fact." (A "durable" power of attorney is one that is not revoked if the individual who granted it becomes disabled or incapacitated). In most cases the document goes into effect when it is signed. For most students, the purpose of the financial durable power of attorney is to give their parents access to financial college records and banking information, and to enable them to access or pay credit card bills and deal with a landlord. Unlike a health care proxy, the financial durable power of attorney can be given to more than one person at a time. The student can also designate successors in the durable power of attorney and may revoke it at any time. All powers of attorney (durable and nondurable) are revoked at death.

Programming cellphone or smartphone with ICE (In Case of Emergency) contacts: Adding ICE contacts to your cellphone allows first responders to get in touch with emergency contacts if you are incapacitated and can't communicate. If a student is in a car accident or other emergency and can't communicate, a first responder can call an ICE contact on his or her phone to let a loved one know what has happened.

Though no one likes to think about their loved ones suffering an accident, it's still important to have a plan in place in the event of one. Taking these security measures can bring you peace of mind and can help your college student children take their first steps into estate planning. Talking about health care proxies, the financial durable power of attorney, and ICE programming is an excellent way for you to begin an ongoing discussion about responsibility and structure with your adult children.