Know Your Tax Benefit Options This Filing Season

Whether you're an independent filing your own taxes, or a dependent whose parents or guardians are covering a good portion of your tuition, it's a good idea to be aware of the tax credits and tax benefits you and your family members could be eligible for this filing season.

The federal government has estimated that up to 2 million tuition-paying Americans will receive as much as $2,500 back on their taxes when they file in both 2010 and 2011 by taking advantage of the American Opportunity Tax Credit. That credit was established through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The American Opportunity Tax Credit, which can be claimed for tuition and certain fees you pay for higher education in 2009 and 2010, is targeted at low- and middle-income families, and isn't available to single filers earning more than $90,000 a year or couples earning more than $180,000. Even those who owe no taxes due to how little they make may receive refunds of up to $1,000.

The American Opportunity Tax Credit expanded (and renamed) the already existing Hope Credit. How did the two compare? 

  • The Hope Credit applied only to the first two years of college. The American Opportunity Tax Credit can be claimed for expenses for the first four years of post-secondary education.
  • The American Opportunity Tax Credit is a $700 increase over the Hope Credit.
  • The term "qualified tuition and related expenses" has been expanded to include expenses used for "course materials," which means books, supplies, and equipment needed for a course of study.
  • A qualified, nontaxable distribution from a Section 529 plan during 2009 or 2010 now includes the cost of the purchase of any computer technology, equipment, or Internet access and related services, if such purchases will be used by the beneficiary of the plan and the beneficiary's family during the time those beneficiaries are enrolled in an institution of higher education.

Other important facts before you file for an American Opportunity Tax Credit:

  • The credit is claimed using Form 8863, attached to Form 1040 or 1040A.
  • You have to choose between tax credits. You cannot claim the tuition and fees tax deduction in the same year that you claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit or the lifetime learning credit. (You should choose which one will offer you the best refund. It's fine to take advantage of all of your options.)
  • 60 percent of the American Opportunity Tax Credit is nonrefundable, so if your credit exceeds your tax, the difference isn't refunded to you.

Make sure you and your family are prepared this tax season, because the federal government does offer perks to going to - and paying for - higher education.

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