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: “File and suspend”

Dear Liz: You recently encouraged a reader to listen to his financial advisor, who wanted him to file for his Social Security benefit at his full retirement age of 66 but then suspend the application until his benefit maxes out at age 70.

Another good feature of this “file and suspend” maneuver is the ability to ask for all the unpaid benefits in a single lump sum in the event one develops a terminal illness or needs funds for some other exigent circumstance, such as long-term care. The potential lump sum “back pay” can be a pretty good insurance policy while waiting for age 70.

Answer: Thanks for highlighting this important feature. Many people who are on the fence about delaying Social Security don’t understand that their decision is reversible — as long as they wait until their full retirement age to file.

At that point, they have the option to file and suspend. If they later change their minds, they can request a lump sum for all the benefits back to the date they filed.

They lose any “delayed retirement credits” from waiting — in other words, their benefit is reset to what it would have been had it started at full retirement age — but they get a big chunk of cash when they may need it most.

People who file before their full retirement age, which is currently 66 and rising to 67 for people born in 1960 and later, don’t have the option to file and suspend.

Q&A: Max contributions to 401(k)s

Dear Liz: I understand that anybody with a 401(k) can contribute up to $18,000. Does the amount you can contribute depend on your salary? Say you make $45,000. Therefore I would assume you could put in the full $18,000, or 40% of your salary. Am I wrong?

Answer: The maximum the IRS allows someone under 50 to contribute to a 401(k), 403(b), most 457 plans and the federal government’s Thrift Savings Plan is $18,000 in 2015. The additional “catch up” contribution limit for people 50 and older is $6,000.

The plans themselves, though, may impose lower limits. Even if the plan doesn’t cap contributions, your contributions may be limited if you’re considered a “highly compensated employee.” Last year, highly compensated employees were those who earned more than $115,000 or owned more than 5% of the business. If lower-earning employees don’t contribute enough to the plan, higher earners may not be able to put in as much as they’d like.

Q&A: Capital gains taxes

Dear Liz: My wife owns a house that was separate property before our marriage. She has since fallen ill and needs round-the-clock care. I am selling the house to support this and will net about $250,000 at close. Will we have to pay capital gains taxes, or can I claim a one-time exemption, based upon this not being community property?

Answer: If your wife lived in the property as her principal residence for at least two of the five years prior to the sale, the profit would qualify for the capital gains exemption of up to $250,000 per owner.

People who have to sell their principal homes before they meet the two-year residency requirement may qualify for a partial exclusion if the sale was triggered by special circumstances such as a change in health or employment or “unforeseen circumstances.” You’ll want to talk to a tax pro about whether your wife’s situation qualifies.

Even if the gain is taxable, she may not owe tax on the entire amount netted from the sale. When figuring home sale profit, her basis in the home — essentially, what she paid for it, plus any qualifying improvements — is subtracted from what she nets from the sale.

There’s another way to avoid paying taxes on home sale gains, and that’s to hold on to the property until your wife’s death. At that point, the home would get a “step up” in tax basis to the current market value. An inheritor who sold the home at that market value wouldn’t owe any tax, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting U.S.

Q&A: Postponing Social Security

Dear Liz: My question is on when to take Social Security. My financial advisor recommends that I file for my benefit at age 66 but suspend the application so my benefit can continue to grow until it maxes out at age 70. At 66, I would receive $2,614 per month. At age 70 I would receive $3,451 per month. In those 48 months I would have received $125,472. I calculate that it would take me 12.49 years to make up the difference of $837 a month. So why should I postpone until age 70? What am I missing?

Answer: There’s a big difference between postponing Social Security until your full retirement age of 66 and postponing again until age 70.

Postponing until full retirement age is pretty much a slam-dunk, if you can afford to do so. That’s because most people will live beyond the break-even point, which is typically somewhere between ages 77 and 78.

The break-even point for postponing until age 70 is between age 83 and 84, which is cutting it closer in terms of average life expectancy. A man who reaches age 65 is expected to live on average until age 84. Women reaching 65 are expected to live until 86.

But focusing just on break-even points ignores other, more important factors.

One is that waiting offers an 8% annual return between age 66 and 70. No other investment offers a built-in, guaranteed return that high.

Another has to do with survivors. If your spouse earned less than you, she would end up depending on your check alone should you die first. (Survivors get the larger of their own benefit or their spouse’s, but not both.) The larger the check, the better off she’ll be.

You can think of Social Security as a kind of longevity insurance that protects you against poverty in old age. The longer you or your spouse live, the greater the chance that your assets will be exhausted and that one or both of you will end up depending on Social Security for the greatest part of your income.

Q&A: Shifting Roth IRA Broker Fees

Dear Liz: What can I do to stop my broker from deducting trading fees from my Roth IRA contributions, which I make monthly? Let’s say I invest $420 each month, but the broker takes $7, or $84 a year. Shouldn’t this be payable from a separate source so that I can invest the full contribution each year, thus reaping the eventual benefits of compounding the extra $84 sum over a long period of time?

Answer: As you understand, $7 per month isn’t such a small sum when you factor in how much more you’d get over time by investing that money instead of paying it to a broker. If that money remained in your account, you’d have roughly $8,500 more at the end of 30 years, assuming 7% average annual returns.

All investments have costs, of course, but minimizing those costs typically means you’ll create more wealth.

You can ask your broker if there is a way to pay the monthly fee from another account, but any commission you pay would be included in the annual amount you’re allowed to contribute. If your broker isn’t providing helpful investment advice to justify the commission, you can look into ways to invest for less, such as using a discount brokerage.

Q&A: Social Security spousal benefits

Dear Liz: I’m 52 and my wife is 57. I recently retired from the military and will have a small retirement from my new job. When should I take Social Security and when should she take hers? Her letter from the Social Security Administration says that based on her work record, she will receive $88 a month. She has spent most of our married life as a homemaker and caregiver to our children.

Answer: Your wife can’t file for spousal benefits until you file for your own benefit, and that can’t happen until you turn 62 in 10 years.

You may not want to file that early, though, since that would force you to take a permanently reduced benefit. You would be settling for about half of what you could get by letting your benefit grow, which also means a much smaller benefit for your wife should she outlive you.

A better strategy may be for each of you to wait to apply at least until you reach your own full retirement ages (66 1/2 for her, 67 for you).

Your wife would get her own small benefit until you turned 67. At that point, you could “file and suspend.” That means you file so she could get her much-larger spousal benefit, but you would immediately suspend your application so your own benefit could continue to grow.

The “file and suspend” strategy is really helpful for maximizing what married couples can get from Social Security, but the maneuver is available only for those who have reached their full retirement age.

Three years later, when your benefit maxes out at age 70, you can end the suspension and start getting your checks.

It’s especially important for higher-earning spouses to avoid locking themselves into permanently reduced checks. If your wife outlives you, she’ll have to get by on a single check — yours — so you want the amount to be as large as it can be.

Q&A: Filing joint tax return while not married

Dear Liz: Is it possible to file a joint tax return if you are not married but have lived together for more than seven years? We’ve owned property together for nine years.

Answer: What matters to the IRS is how your state treats your arrangement. Most states don’t recognize common law marriages, in which two people live together but don’t have a marriage license. But a few do.

The states that currently recognize common law marriages under some circumstances include Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas and Utah, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States that recognize common law marriages entered into prior to certain dates include Pennsylvania before Jan. 1, 2005; Ohio before Oct. 10, 1991; Indiana before Jan. 1, 1958; Georgia before Jan. 1, 1997; and Florida before Jan. 1, 1968, according to the NCSL.

Also, most states do recognize common law marriages from those states where they are recognized, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. In other words, if you move from a state where common law marriage is recognized to one where it isn’t, your union may still be considered a legal marriage.

Same-sex marriages are somewhat different, Luscombe said. The U.S. Treasury and the IRS have ruled that same-sex couples who were legally married in jurisdictions that recognize their marriage are considered married for tax purposes, even if the state where they currently live doesn’t recognize their union.

Confused yet? Talk to a local tax pro who can advise you about the status of your arrangement.

Q&A: Credit CARD Act

Dear Liz: I have a business credit card that offers cash rebates. It has an interest rate of 15.24% on purchases and 25.24% on cash advances. I carry balances in each category. Each month the issuer posts my entire payment to my lower-interest purchases balance and nothing to my cash advance balance. I telephoned to complain but I was told that they will not post any payments to my cash advance balance until my purchases balance is completely paid off. I thought that there was a federal regulation that payments had to be posted to the highest-rate debt balance first. Am I mistaken? If not, to which federal agency can I complain?

Answer: There is indeed a federal law that requires payments in excess of the minimum to be applied to the highest-rate balance. It’s part of the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009. But the Credit CARD Act applies only to consumer credit cards — not business cards.

It’s not a good idea to carry a balance on any credit card, but it’s even more dangerous to carry a balance on a card that lacks the consumer protections promised in the Credit CARD Act. Talk to the bank that has your business checking account to see if you can arrange a lower-rate loan to pay off your balances.

Q&A: Helping a mentally ill family member

Dear Liz: I want to offer some bit of advice to the woman with the mentally ill, homeless son. She didn’t say which state he lives in, and I’m guessing it’s not California. There are so many wonderful programs here. I did help a woman my age (late 40s at that time) get off the street by convincing her to let me drive her to PATH (People Assisting the Homeless). It took a few tries but she finally got into my car. PATH took over after that. She has been on Supplemental Security Income for years and lives in a low-income housing tax credit building. Tell the mother that there are social workers dedicated just to representing people that are both homeless and mentally ill in all 50 states. There is also subsidized housing available in all 50 states. She just needs to put her worry into action to find the right social worker or organization. They have the know-how to proceed and help her son. I’m not saying that this will be easy, but she will feel better if she persists in trying to find the right resources for her son and it just might work.

Answer: Thank you for suggesting PATH as a possible solution for homeless people in Southern California. The mother thought there was no help available in the state where her son lives, but every state has at least a few programs for the mentally ill. Getting low-income housing is another matter because many programs have far more applicants than availability.

The mother can certainly make inquiries and suggest possible solutions for her son. But she still needs to set boundaries in how much time and money she dedicates to his problems. She is elderly, on a limited income and several states away from her son. She deserves a little peace at the end of her life, which may mean making peace with the idea that his fate is not in her hands.