Q&A: Tuition gifts and tax breaks

Dear Liz: You recently answered questions about tax breaks for college education expenses. We are contributing $20,000 to our grandson’s college education yearly. He is not our dependent. We are senior citizens with a gross income of about $110,000. Is there any deduction for this expenditure that we might qualify for?

Answer: Your grandson is a lucky young man. Since he’s not your dependent, though, you can’t take any of the available education tax credits or deductions.
The good news is that you don’t have to worry about filing gift tax returns. Each person is allowed to give any other person up to a certain limit each year without triggering the need to file such returns.

This amount, called the annual gift exclusion, is $14,000 this year. Together, you and your spouse could gift up to $30,000 to one person. You wouldn’t actually owe gift taxes until the amounts exceeding this annual exclusion totaled $10.86 million as a couple.

Even if you were giving more than $30,000, there would be a way to avoid filing gift tax returns, and that’s to pay the college directly. Amounts you pay directly to a college or to medical provider are exempt from the limits.

Q&A: The value of associate degrees

Dear Liz: Please continue to encourage people to look into two-year technical degrees. I got my associate’s degree in mechanical engineering and in my first job earned more than my father.

Later I worked for a company that made touch-screen point-of-sale terminals. Time and time again, I trained waiters who had bachelor’s or master’s degrees but couldn’t find better jobs. I now work for a large computer company and have folks sitting around me with those same higher degrees.

Answer: On average, people with two-year degrees are paid less than the average four-year degree holder. One in four people with associate’s degrees, however, earns more, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

These jobs are often in the technical and health fields. Four of the BLS’ 30 fastest-growing job categories require two-year degrees. Those positions include dental hygienist (median annual earnings of $70,210), diagnostic medical sonographers ($65,860), occupational therapy assistants ($53,240) and physical therapist assistant ($52,160).

Other well-paying jobs with good growth prospects requiring two-year degrees include funeral service managers ($66,720), Web developers ($62,500), electrical and electronics drafters ($55,700), nuclear technicians ($69,060), radiation therapists ($77,560), respiratory therapists ($55,870), registered nurses ($65,470), cardiovascular technologists and technicians ($52,070), radiologic technologists ($54,620) and magnetic resonance imaging technologists ($65,360).

Q&A: Uniform Transfers to Minors Act

Dear Liz: My in-laws have gifted stock to our children through the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) to help pay future college expenses. The value of the stock has increased significantly over the past few years.

We would like to sell the shares and move the proceeds into more stable investments for our children. What are our options for those funds? Do you recommend one option over another? I don’t expect them to get much need-based financial aid.

Our household income is approximately $95,000 a year. We have 529 plans for each of our three children and account currently has $6,000 to $9,000.

Answer: If you only have one child in college at a time, then you’re right that you probably won’t get much need-based aid.

If, however, your kids are close enough in age that more than one will attending college simultaneously, you may qualify for more help than you think. One way to find out is to use the EFC Calculator at the College Board website, which can give you an estimate of the amount your family is expected to contribute to higher education costs.

If your kids may get need-based financial aid, then they probably shouldn’t have money in UTMA or other custodial accounts. UTMA accounts and their predecessor, Uniform Gift to Minors Act or UGMA accounts, used to be a good way to save on taxes but changes to the so-called “kiddie tax” rules have made them less appealing.

Income from the accounts above $2,000 a year for children under 19 and full-time college students under 24 is now taxed at the parent’s rate. What’s more, these custodial accounts count heavily against families in financial aid calculations.

Often it’s best to spend down the money by the child’s junior year in high school (by paying for tutoring, a laptop, private school or other expenses that benefit the child.)

Another option is to transfer the proceeds to a 529 college savings plan, since these state-run investment accounts typically are viewed favorably in financial aid formulas. What’s more, the plans offer professional management and diversified portfolios known as “age-weighted” options that grow more conservative as a child approaches college age.

You’ll want to talk to a tax pro about what makes sense in your specific situation, especially since selling the shares all at once may trigger a big tax bill.

Q&A: 529 plans vs. education tax breaks

Dear Liz: You recently mentioned in your column that you can’t use any of the three education tax breaks — the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit or the tuition and fees deduction — for expenses paid with 529 college savings plan money. This has me wondering if those 529 plans are really worth it.

Wouldn’t you have to have a really large amount invested to have enough earnings to make it worth not taking one of the credits?

Answer: If college were cheap, that might be a problem. But most people have far more college expenses than they can write off on their tax returns.

The average net price for one year at a four-year college — the published cost minus free financial aid such as grants and scholarships — was just under $13,000 last year, including tuition, fees, room and board. The average net price was around $6,000 at two-year public colleges and $23,550 at private four-year schools.

Many people pay a lot more, as the sticker prices at colleges continue to rise.

As mentioned in the previous column, the three available tax breaks are mutually exclusive, so you can’t take more than one in any given year.

The most generous credit, the American Opportunity Credit, reduces taxes dollar-for-dollar for the first $2,000 of college expenses and then by 25% of the next $2,000 — for a total of $2,500 per student.

If your qualified education expenses exceed $4,000, as they probably will, those tax-free 529 plan withdrawals will come in handy.

Q&A: Investing vs Saving for college tuition

Dear Liz: We recently inherited some money. We’ve never had much. We want to invest our inheritance for our kids’ college education.

We asked around to find investment firms that people have had a good experience with. But how do we know they are honest and make sound investment decisions? How do we know if the rates they are charging are fair and reasonable? (For example, one charges a percentage of the value of the account. How do I know if their rate is a fair amount?)

Answer: If you want to invest the money for college education, you don’t need to consult an advisor at all. You simply can use a 529 college savings plan. These plans allow you to invest money that grows tax-deferred and can be used tax free for qualified college expenses nationwide.

These plans are sponsored by the states and run by investment firms. You might want to stick with your own state’s plan if you get a tax break for doing so (check http://www.savingforcollege.com for the details of each plan).

If not, consider choosing one of the plans singled out by research firm Morningstar as the best in 2014: the Maryland College Investment Plan, Alaska’s T. Rowe Price College Savings Plan, the Vanguard 529 College Savings Plan in Nevada and the Utah Educational Savings Plan.

College savings plans typically offer several investment choices, but you can make it easy by choosing the “age weighted” option, which invests your contributions according to your child’s age, getting more conservative as college draws nearer.

If you still want to talk to an advisor — which isn’t a bad idea when dealing with a windfall — you’ll want to choose carefully.

Relying on friends and family isn’t necessarily the best approach. Many of the people who invested with Bernie Madoff were introduced to him by people they knew.

Most advisors aren’t crooks, but they also don’t have to put your interests ahead of their own. That means they can steer you into expensive investment products that pay them larger commissions.

If you want an advisor who puts you first, you’ll want to find one who agrees to be a fiduciary for you, and who is willing to put that in writing.

Here are three sources for fiduciary advice:

•The Financial Planning Assn. at http://www.plannersearch.org

•The Garrett Planning Network at http://www.garrettplanningnetwork.com

•The National Assn. of Personal Financial Advisors at http://www.napfa.org.

Garrett planners charge by the hour with no minimums. Expect to pay around $150 an hour.

NAPFA planners often charge a percentage of assets — typically about 1%.

FPA members charge for advice in a variety of ways, including fees, commissions and a combination of the two.

Any planner should provide you with clear information about how he or she gets paid.

You’ll want to check the advisor’s credentials as well. The gold standard for financial planners is the CFP, which stands for Certified Financial Planner.

An equivalent designation for CPAs is the PFS, which stands for Personal Financial Specialist. People with these designations have received a broad education in comprehensive financial planning, have met minimum experience requirements and agree to uphold certain ethical standards.

Each of the organizations listed above has more tips for choosing a plan on its website.

Q&A: American Opportunity Credit for college expenses

Dear Liz: I am confused regarding my ability to take advantage of the American Opportunity Credit for college expenses in filing my 2014 tax return.

My accountant told me I didn’t qualify because my adjusted gross income exceeds $80,000. Yet when I researched on the IRS website, I seem to qualify. I paid qualified education expenses for my son to get an MBA and am claiming him as a dependent on my return, since he is unemployed and I support him. My adjusted gross income was $84,905.

The IRS rules discuss modified adjusted gross income less than $90,000. Is my accountant thinking of another tax credit that I don’t qualify for? Can I take advantage of any credit for providing educational expenses for my son to obtain a graduate degree? I filed for an extension in order to resolve this issue.

Answer: Education tax breaks can be baffling because each has different income limits, eligibility requirements and qualifying expenses.

Three of them — the American Opportunity Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit and the tuition and fees deduction — are mutually exclusive. That means you can take only one per year, and you can’t use any of them for expenses paid with a tax-free 529 plan withdrawal.

It’s no wonder that many people who may be eligible to take these breaks don’t take advantage of them, even though they could shave thousands of dollars off their tax bills.

The American Opportunity Credit is usually the most valuable credit. It reduces taxes by up to $2,500 per student and is 40% refundable, which means people can get up to $1,000 back even if they don’t have any taxes to offset.

But the credit can’t be claimed for more than four years, and any year in which the old Hope Credit was claimed counts toward that limit. Since your son was in graduate school, it’s possible you already used up your ability to claim the credit.

You can qualify for the full tax break if your modified adjusted gross income is below $80,000 as a single filer or $160,000 for a married couple filing jointly. The credit gets smaller as your income goes up. After $90,000 for singles — and $180,000 for a married couple filing jointly — the tax break is no longer available.

If you can’t take the credit, your son might be able to claim it — if he had taxable income last year and you opt not to take a dependency exemption for him. Discuss this possibility with your tax pro.

You make too much money for the other two options: the Lifetime Learning Credit and the tuition and fees deduction. The Lifetime Learning Credit offsets 20% of tuition and certain other required expenses up to $2,000 per tax return.

In 2014, the credit was gradually reduced for modified adjusted gross incomes between $54,000 and $64,000 for singles, and $108,000 and $128,000 for married couples filing jointly.

The tuition and fees deduction reduces taxable income by a maximum of $4,000 for incomes up to $65,000 for single filers and $130,000 for joint filers, and by up to $2,000 for incomes over $65,000 for singles and $130,000 for joint filers. There’s no deduction for incomes over $80,000 for singles and $160,000 for joint filers.

Q&A: Graduation gifts and financial aid

Dear Liz: Our grandson’s stellar high school performance and his family financial situation were such that he was admitted to his state university with grants sufficient to pay all school fees, including room and board, with no loans or work-study. His grandmother and I have a 529 account in his name that has enough money to pay about twice his estimated books and living expenses, given this level of financial aid.

His other grandparents gave him a high school graduation present of a check for four times the annual estimated books and living expenses. Does he need to amend this year’s financial aid form to reflect this generous gift? Should I suggest he put part of the gift aside for future years to diminish the effect on future financial aid?

Because of his unexpected gift, we plan to not use the funds in the 529 account until needed for his undergraduate or possible graduate school expenses. If he doesn’t need the money, we plan to transfer the balance to his younger sister’s 529 account.

Answer: Your grandson won’t have to amend this year’s financial aid forms but he will have to declare the gift on next year’s form. That could indeed reduce his financial aid package, since such gifts are considered to be the student’s income and thus will be counted heavily against him next year.

There’s not much that can be done about it now, but generous grandparents in this situation might think about holding off on their gifts until the student’s final year in college when financial aid is no longer a consideration. Paying that last year’s expenses, or paying down any student loan balances, would be a gift without repercussions.

Q&A: How to get the maximum in financial aid

Dear Liz: I’m having trouble finding information about how to structure my finances to get the maximum financial aid for my kids when they enter college. For example, will contributing to an IRA instead of a taxable investment account matter? Should I focus on paying off my mortgage or should I buy a bigger house and acquire debt in the process if I want my kids to qualify for more aid? There’s plenty of advice out there about how to minimize taxes — for example, by contributing to 401(k)s or selling losing stocks at year-end. But I’m interested in legally and ethically shielding my assets from the family contribution calculations used by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Any idea how I can learn more about the inner workings of the FASFA formula?

Answer: Before you rearrange your finances, you need to understand that most financial aid these days consists of loans, which have to be repaid, rather than scholarships and grants that don’t. Wanting your kids to qualify for more aid could just lead them to qualify for more debt.

Also, the FAFSA formula weighs income more heavily than assets. If you have a six-figure income and only one child in college at a time, you shouldn’t expect much need-based financial aid, regardless of what you do with your assets.

That said, there are some sensible ways to shield assets from the formula, and often they’re things you should be doing anyway: maxing out your retirement contributions, for example, and using any non-retirement savings to pay down credit cards, car loans and other consumer debt.

Using non-retirement savings to pay down mortgage debt helps with the federal formula, but may not help much with private schools that include home equity in their calculations. Either way, taking on a bigger mortgage with college looming is rarely a good idea.

You can get some idea of how much the federal formula expects you to pay for your children’s educations by using the “estimated family contribution” calculator at FinAid.org. Another great source of information is the book “Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid” by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy.

Should you hide assets to get more financial aid?

Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?

Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.

The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.

First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.

Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.

Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.

Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.

Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.

If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.

Uncle Sam can help with education costs

Dear Liz: I have rental property, own my home outright, am contributing to a 401(k) and have a pension, so finances are not a big issue. I do have an adult son in law school and would like to know the most fiscally prudent way to pay for it. Are there limits on gifts, and can the money be tax deductible since it is an investment to increase his future earnings?

Answer: Interest on student loans is generally tax deductible for the person who takes out the loan if his or her income is below certain limits (the deduction begins to phase out at $50,000 adjusted gross income for single filers and $100,000 for joint filers), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.

Education tax credits also can help offset college costs. The American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, but law school expenses could qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, Luscombe said. The credit starts to phase out at $53,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $107,000 for joint filers, he said.

If you don’t qualify for other credits and your son is under age 24, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses if your income is below certain limits (modified adjusted gross income of $160,000 if married filing jointly or $80,000 if single), Luscombe said. You can find out the details in IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.

Another potential tax benefit has to do with the gift tax. You can avoid the hassle of filing a gift tax return, or using up any portion of your gift tax exclusion, if you pay tuition or medical bills for someone else. You have to pay the provider directly — you can’t cut a check to the person receiving the services.

Normally, you’d have to file a gift tax return if you gave any recipient more than the gift tax exclusion limit, which is $14,000 in 2013. You wouldn’t be subject to an actual gift tax, however, until the sum of the contributions over that $14,000 limit exceeded your lifetime gift exemption. The gift exemption is currently $5.25 million, so the gift tax is an issue that few people face.

If you are that rich and generous, then you’ll probably want to discuss your situation with a qualified estate planning attorney to find the best ways to give.