Take Advantage of the Education Tax Credits

Article Highlights:

  • American Opportunity Tax Credit
  • Lifetime Learning Credit
  • Who Gets the Credit?
  • Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses
  • Eligible Educational Institutions
  • Form 1098-T
  • Scholarships
  • Tax Fraud

As with everything taxes, the devil is in the details, and that includes the education tax credits, which come in two types with some different rules for each. Many people think the credits are for sending their children to college, which is true, but the credits are also available to you and your spouse (if you are married) as well as to your dependents. So even taxpayers attending school part-time may qualify for a tax credit.

American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) – The AOTC provides a credit of up to $2,500 per year per eligible student. Generally, tax credits are non-refundable, meaning they can only be used to offset any tax liability the taxpayer may have for the year. However, up to 40% of the AOTC is refundable, even when the taxpayer has no tax liability. Thus, it can result in a refund of as much as $1,000 (40% of $2,500).

The credit amount is 100% of the first $2,000 of tuition and related expenses plus 25% of the next $2,000 of qualifying expenses. However, the AOTC is only allowed for four tax years and only for the first four years of post-secondary education. The student must be enrolled at least half-time in a program leading to a degree, certificate, or other recognized educational credential for at least one academic period beginning in the tax year in which the credit is claimed.

This credit phases out for joint-filing taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income between $160,000 and $180,000, and between $80,000 and $90,000 for others. The credit is not allowed for married taxpayers using the filing status of married filing separately.

Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) ‒ The LLC is a non-refundable credit worth up to $2,000 per year, and there is no limit on the number of years that the LLC can be claimed. Unlike the AOTC, there is no “half-time student” requirement, and single courses can qualify. The credit is 20% of the costs of tuition and related expenses. However, while the AOTC is determined on a per student basis, the LLC is based upon the tax family’s qualified education expenses for the year. If a student qualifies for the more beneficial AOTC, that student’s expenses cannot also be used for the LLC.

Like the AOTC, this credit phases out for higher-income taxpayers, but unlike the AOTC, the phaseout income levels are annually adjusted for inflation. For 2019, the LLC phases out for joint filing taxpayers with modified adjusted gross income between $116,000 and $136,000, and between $58,000 and $68,000 for others. The credit is not allowed for taxpayers who file married filing separate returns.

Who Gets the Credit? – As you would expect, the credit for dependents attending college or the taxpayer (and spouse, if any) attending college will be claimed on the taxpayer’s tax return. You may qualify for this credit even if you did not pay the tuition. If a third party (someone other than the taxpayer or a claimed dependent) directly makes a payment to an eligible educational institution for a student’s qualified tuition and related expenses, then the student would be treated as having received the payment from the third party and, in turn, as paying the qualified tuition and related expenses. Furthermore, qualified tuition and related expenses paid by a student would be treated as being paid by the taxpayer if the taxpayer claims the student as a dependent.

Example: If one divorced parent pays qualified tuition to a college for a child but the other parent has custody of the child (and is eligible to claim the child as a dependent), then the custodial parent is treated as having directly paid the tuition to the college and would get the credit.

Example: If a grandparent, or someone else, pays the qualified tuition directly to the institution, then the parents, assuming they claim the student as a dependent, would be the ones qualified to claim the education credit. This would also apply if the tuition was paid for the taxpayer or spouse. This makes for some interesting tax planning since the tuition paid directly to an educational institution is also excluded for gift reporting or gift tax consequences, allowing individuals who wish to make gifts above the $15,000 per year per recipient limit to pay the tuition for a non-dependent child or grandchild and avoid any gift tax complications, while at the same time providing the education credit.

Qualified Tuition and Related Expenses – Unfortunately, recent law changes affecting qualified expenses only applied to the AOTC, creating another difference between the two credits.

  • AOTC – Qualified expenses include tuition, books, supplies, and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible institution. For this purpose, “required for enrollment or attendance” means that the course materials are needed for “meaningful attendance or enrollment” in a course of study, whether or not the materials are purchased from the institution or an outside vendor. A frequent question is whether a computer qualifies as an AOTC expense. The IRS has indicated a computer does qualify if it is needed for attendance at the educational institution. Generally, in this day and age, a computer is necessary.
  • LLC – Qualified expenses include tuition and amounts paid for books, supplies, and equipment, but only if these items are purchased from the educational institution as a condition of attendance.

Eligible Educational Institutions – Eligible institutions generally include any accredited public, nonprofit, or proprietary post-secondary institution eligible to participate in the student aid programs administered by the Department of Education. This includes most colleges and universities. Vocational schools or other post-secondary schools may also qualify. If you aren’t sure if the student’s school is eligible, ask the school if it is an eligible educational institution. This requirement will rule out foreign educational institutions.

Special Tuition Prepayment Rule – A special rule allows the tuition for an academic period that begins in the first three months of the next year to be paid in advance; thus, it increases the amount of tuition qualifying for the credit in the year when the tuition is paid. This allows for planning of when to make tuition payments to maximize credits, especially in the first partial calendar year.

Tax Tip: Since the American Opportunity credit is only allowed in the first four tax years (calendar years for nearly all individuals) for each eligible student, taxpayers may benefit from prepaying the education expenses for an academic period beginning in the first three months of the next year. This is especially important when you consider that most students enter college in the last half of the first tax year and qualify for the credit with only half a year’s expenses in the first year. Working out a payment plan in which the tuition is prepaid under the three-month rule for each of the academic years would more evenly spread the tuition over the four years.

Form 1098-T ‒ In most cases, you (or the student) should receive Form 1098-T, Tuition Statement, from the school reporting qualifying expenses to the IRS and to you. The amount shown on the form will be the amount paid to the school for the student’s qualifying tuition and related expenses, not reduced by scholarships or grants. Therefore, the amount shown on the form in box 1 may be different from the amount eligible for the credit and may not be the amount you actually paid. You can only claim an education credit for the qualifying tuition and related expenses that you paid in that tax year. As discussed earlier in the Tax Tip, a provision allows the tuition for the first three months of the next year to be prepaid and deducted on the tax return for the year of payment. However, any prepaid tuition cannot be deducted in the subsequent year.

Scholarships – For education credit purposes, qualified tuition must be reduced by tax-free scholarship amounts (including fellowships) that are excluded from income.

Tax Fraud – The education credits are frequent targets for tax fraud, especially the AOTC, because a portion of it is refundable. So, the IRS has integrity provisions in place, including (1) that a taxpayer cannot amend a prior year return in which the individual qualifying for the credit did not have a taxpayer identification number (TIN) when the original return was filed and (2) that the employer identification number (EIN) of the educational institution must be included on Form 8863, which is the IRS form used to claim the credit. The EIN is included as part of the information on the Form 1098-T that the school issues to you.

In addition, paid tax preparer’s are subject to a monetary penalty if they do not abide by certain due diligence requirements and complete and submit the due diligence worksheet when filing a return.

As you can see, several nuances associated with the education credits must be considered. Please give us a call if you need assistance with education planning or want more information on how the education tax credits apply to your particular circumstances.

Updated W-4 for Tax Year 2020

The redesigned Form W-4 employs a building block approach to replace complex worksheets with more straightforward questions that make it simpler for employees to figure a more accurate withholding. While it uses the same underlying information as the old design, the new form uses a more personalized, step-by-step approach to better accommodate individual taxpayer needs.

Employees who have submitted a Form W-4 in any year before 2020 are not required to submit a new form merely because of the redesign. Employers will continue to compute withholding based on the information from the employee’s most recently submitted Form W-4.

The IRS is once again urging taxpayers to do another paycheck withholdings checkup this year to ensure they have the correct amount withheld for their personal tax profile.

Tax Changes For 2019

Article Highlights:

  • Medical Threshold
  • Electric Vehicle Credit Phaseout
  • Alimony
  • Finalization of State- and Local-Tax Deduction Limitation
  • Penalty for Not Being Insured
  • Qualified Opportunity Funds
  • Seniors’ Special Tax Form
  • Family and Medical Leave Credit
  • Inflation Adjustments
  • Form W-4 Revision

As the end of the year approaches, now is a good time to review the various changes that impact 2019 tax returns. Some of the changes are likely to apply to your tax situation. In addition, be aware that various tax-related bills currently in Congress may or may not pass this year. If any of them do pass, we will quickly get the details to you.

Medical Threshold – Medical expenses are deductible as itemized deductions only if the total medical expenses for the tax year exceed a specified percentage of a taxpayer’s income. After dropping to 7.5% for 2017 and 2018, this threshold reverts to 10% for 2019. As a result, any medical expenses from 2019 are deductible only to the extent that they exceed 10% of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income for the year.

Electric Vehicle Credit Phaseout – As an incentive to get taxpayers to move away from conventional-fuel (gasoline or diesel) vehicles, Congress has provided tax credits of up to $7,500 for the purchase of plug-in electric vehicles. However, Congress’s rules limit the full credit to the first 200,000 vehicles sold by a given manufacturer. Once a company sells 200,000 qualifying vehicles, the credit begins to phase out for that company. Tesla, Chevrolet, and Cadillac have all reached the phaseout point. The table below shows the credits available depending upon the quarter when the vehicle is purchased.

Vehicles Beginning Phaseout out 2019
Date Acquired
Before 2019
Jan – Mar 2019
Apr – June 2019
July – Sept 2019
Oct – Dec 2019
Jan – Mar 2020
After Mar 2020
$7,500 $3,750 $3,750 $1,875 $1,875 $0 $0
$7,500 $7,500 $3,750 $3,750 $1,875 $1,875 $0
$7,500 $7,500 $3,750 $3,750 $1,875 $1,875 $0
*All qualifying models

If a qualifying vehicle is used partiality for business, the credit is proportionally allocated between personal and business tax credits. The personal portion can only offset the individual’s current-year tax liability; any excess is lost. The business portion can be carried back for one year and then forward up to 20 years until it is used up; any credit remaining after the 20th year is lost. As a tip, please note that the credit limit is per vehicle, not per taxpayer, so individuals who make multiple purchases can receive multiple credits.

Alimony – One delayed effect of the 2017 tax reform is that, the treatment of alimony changes for some individuals starting in 2019.

For divorces or separations entered into before 2019, alimony payments continue to be deductible for the payer and taxable for the recipient; such payments also still qualify as earned income for purposes of the recipient’s qualification for an IRA deduction. For divorces or separations executed after December 31, 2018, alimony payments are no longer deductible for the payer. In addition, for the recipient, they are no longer taxable income and do not count as earned income for the purposes of IRA deduction.

Divorces or separations entered into before 2019 continue to follow the pre-2019 rules unless they have been modified after December 31, 2018; in that case, the alimony payments are subject to the post-2018 rules if the modification expressly provides for this.

Finalization of State- and Local-Tax Deduction Limitation – The 2017 tax reform limited the itemized deduction for state and local taxes (SALT) to $10,000 (or $5,000 for married individuals filing separately). This has adversely impacted taxpayers in high-tax states such as California, Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York. Elected officials in several states have attempted to work around this restriction by establishing (or proposing to establish) state charities. The idea is that taxpayers would make deductible contributions that, in return, would give them tax credits against their SALT equal to most of the value of the charitable contributions. Unfortunately, these officials have overlooked the 1986 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that, if a taxpayer receives something in return for a contribution (i.e., a quid pro quo), the contribution is not deductible.

The final regulations generally reduce the charitable-contribution deduction by the amount of any SALT credit received. However, as an exception, if the credit does not exceed 15% of the contribution, the entire contribution is deductible.

Penalty for Not Being Insured – The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (tax-reform) that was enacted at the end of 2017 eliminated the Obamacare shared-responsibility payment, effective starting in 2019. Congress didn’t actually repeal this penalty; instead, it effectively repealed it by tweaking by setting zero values for both the percentage of household income used in the calculation and the flat dollar amount of the penalty. As a result, the amount of the penalty is always zero. However, keep in mind that the penalty could be restored in the future if the direction that the political winds are blowing changes. In addition, beginning in 2020, some states may pick up where the federal government left off and charge a penalty to residents without qualified health insurance coverage.

Qualified Opportunity Funds – Taxpayers who receive capital gains on the sale or exchange of property (if the other party is unrelated) may elect to defer – and, potentially, partially exclude – those gains from their gross income if they are reinvested in a qualified opportunity fund (QOF) within 180 days of the sale or exchange. The amount of the gain (not the amount of the proceeds, as in Sec. 1031 deferrals) needs to be reinvested in order to defer the gain. The deferral period ends when the QOF investment ends or on December 31, 2026 – whichever is sooner. At that time, taxes must be paid on the deferred gain.

However, 10% of the deferred gains are forgiven QOF investments have been held for at least 5 years, and 15% of the gains are forgiven when those investments have been held for at least 7 years. Note that, with the deferral end date of December 31, 2026, qualifying for the 15% forgiveness requires a QOF investment on or before December 31, 2019.

Seniors Get a Special Tax Form – Lawmakers have long sought to provide taxpayers who are age 65 and older with a simplified tax form in place of the Form 1040. In the 2018 budget bill, Congress finally included a requirement that the IRS create such a form. As a result, the IRS will introduce Form 1040-SR, which will look a lot like the old form looked before the 2018 tax reform instituted its (politically motivated) division of the Form 1040 into multiple postcard-size schedules. It is unclear how much simpler the Form 1040-SR will be, but it will be available for 2019 returns. Form 1040-SR will be optional.

Family and Medical Leave Credit – The employer credit for family and medical leave, which was created in the 2017 tax reform, ends after 2019. This two-year program provides employers with a tax credit equal to 12.5% of the wages they paid to qualifying employees during any period when those employees were on family and medical leave, provided that the rate of the leave payments are at least 50% of the employees’ normal wages. The credit can be claimed for a maximum of 12 weeks of leave for any employee during the tax year. For each percentage point for which the leave payments exceed 50% of normal wages, this credit increases by 0.25 percentage points (up to a maximum of 25%). Participation in this credit program is optional.

Inflation Adjustments – Just about every tax-related value is adjusted for inflation. Some values are adjusted for any level of change, but others are adjusted only if the change reaches at least a specific dollar amount (so these values may not change every year). The table below includes the actual 2019 inflation adjustments and the projected 2020 adjustments for some of the most frequently encountered values.

Year 2018 2019 2020
Standard Deduction
Single or Married Filing Separately 12,000 12,200 12,400
Head of Household 18,000 18,350 18,650
Married Filing Jointly 24,000 24,400 24,800
Additional Standard Deduction (Age 65+ or Blind)
Unmarried 1,600 1,650 1,650
Married 1,300 1,300 1,300
Other Values
Annual Gift-Tax Exclusion 15,000 15,000 15,000
Foreign Earned-Income Exclusion 103,900 105,900 107,600
IRA Contribution Limit 5,500 6,000 6,000
IRA Contribution Limit (Age 50+) 6,500 7,000 7,000
401(k) Contribution Limit 18,500 19,000 *
401(k) Contribution Limit (Age 50+) 18,500 19,000 *
All values are in U.S. dollars.
* Value not available as of publication

Form W-4 Revision – During the previous tax season, many people received a smaller federal tax refund than normal or actually owed taxes despite usually getting a refund. In most cases, this was due to the last-minute passage of the tax-reform law at the end of 2017, which did not give the IRS not sufficient time to adjust the W-4 form and related computation tables for the 2018 tax year so as to account for all of the new law’s changes. The planned major revision to the W-4 for the 2019 tax year has since been delayed until 2020, so all taxpayers should make sure that their 2019 withholding is adequate.

If you are conversant with tax terminology, you can use the IRS’s newly updated withholding estimator. This tool helps taxpayers to determine whether their employers are withholding the right amount of tax from their paychecks. However, please note that the results are only as good as the information that is put into the estimator. Users need to properly estimate their other income for the year from various sources.

If you have questions related to any of the subjects discussed in this article, be sure to give us a call at 562-404-7996.

Should You Have an Identity Protection PIN?

Article Highlights:

  • Taxpayer First Act
  • Taxpayer Notification when a SSN is Fraudulently Used
  • Purpose of an IP PIN
  • Obtaining an IP PIN
  • Is an IP PIN Right for You?

With the passage of the Taxpayer First Act in mid-2019, the Treasury Department (i.e., the IRS) is required to establish a program to issue an identity protection pin (IP PIN) to any U.S. resident who requests one. For each calendar year beginning after the date of enactment, the IRS must also expand the issuance of IP PINs to individuals residing in such states as the IRS deems appropriate, provided that the total number of states served by the program continues to increase.

Often, identity theft and refund fraud victims may be unaware that their identity has been used fraudulently, or when they are aware, they may not be fully informed of the outcome of their case. The Taxpayer First Act addresses this situation by requiring that the IRS notify a taxpayer if it determines any of the following: there has been any suspected unauthorized use of a taxpayer’s identity or of that of the taxpayer’s dependents; if an investigation has been initiated and its status; whether the investigation substantiated any unauthorized use of the taxpayer’s identity; and whether any action has been taken (such as a referral for prosecution). Furthermore, when an individual is charged with a crime, the IRS must notify the victim as soon as possible, giving the victim the ability to pursue civil action against the perpetrators.

An IP PIN is a six-digit number assigned by the IRS to eligible taxpayers. This pin helps prevent the misuse of taxpayers’ SSNs on fraudulent federal income tax returns.

The IP PIN was originally established several years ago to aid taxpayers whose SSNs had been used to file a fraudulent return or if a taxpayer’s SSN had been compromised and there was concern it could be used to file a fraudulent return. Recently, as a result of the Taxpayer First Act, the IRS has opened the IP PIN system to a variety of taxpayers.

In addition to taxpayers whose SSNs the IRS has determined are compromised for tax-filing purposes, IP PINs now are available to those who

  • filed their federal tax return last year as a resident of Florida, Georgia, the District of Columbia, Michigan, California, Maryland, Nevada, Delaware, Illinois, or Rhode Island or
  • received an IRS letter inviting them to “opt-in” to get an IP PIN.

Requesting an IP PIN is strictly voluntary. If you choose not to participate in the program, you can file your return as you normally would. If you are assigned or if you request an IP PIN, you must use it – along with your SSN – to confirm your identity on any tax returns filed electronically during the calendar year. A new IP PIN is generated for each filing season and can be retrieved starting in mid-January of each year by logging into the account you create with the IRS. At this time, if you choose to receive an IP PIN, you must use your IP PIN on all 1040 (current year and delinquent) returns filed during the calendar year.

To obtain an IP PIN, you must pass the IRS’s identity verification secure access process. To do that, you must register with the IRS and set up an online account that is only accessible with a username and password established during the registration process. This can require lots of verification information so the IRS can make sure you are not a scammer trying to obtain an IP PIN for someone whose identity has already been stolen. Next, you have to log into the IRS IP PIN Section, which requires double authentication: a password plus a 6-digit code that is sent to your cell phone. Once you have jumped through all those hoops, you can retrieve your IP PIN.

So, is an IP PIN right for you? That depends; the process is quite complicated, and you get a new number every year. So, you have to weigh the trouble and inconvenience it creates when your SSN has not been compromised with knowing you can always obtain an IP PIN if your SSN is compromised in the future or if you feel it may have been compromised. The decision is up to you.

Of course, if the IRS has already sent you a CP01A Notice – the annual communication from the IRS containing your unique 6-digit IP PIN and instructions on how to use it—you are already in the system.

Employer-Offered Benefits That Can Save You Money and Taxes

Tax law includes a number of tax- and financially favored benefits that employers can offer or provide to their employees. This article is intended to make you aware of these perks, with the caveat that all employers, especially small businesses, may not provide all, or perhaps any, of these covered perks. But whichever of these benefits your employer offers, you should seriously consider taking advantage of them, if you haven’t already.

Health Insurance – For a company that has 50 or more employees, the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) requires the business to offer at least 95% of its full-time employees and their dependents (but not spouse) with affordable minimum essential health care coverage or be subject to a penalty. If you work for one of these larger employers and the company picks up the entire health insurance premium cost, consider yourself lucky, as the costs of health insurance coverage have risen dramatically over the last few years. More likely, you may have to pay part of the premium costs, and the plan may have a high deductible and/or co-pays. Even so, the tax-free benefit of what the employer covers is valuable. While not required to, businesses with fewer than 50 employees may offer health care coverage, often for competitive purposes in retaining employees. The health insurance premiums paid on your behalf by your employer are tax-free to you. If you aren’t aware of the value of this nontaxable employee benefit, you can look at your Form W-2, box 12a, code DD, which shows your share of the cost of employer-sponsored health coverage. You can claim the part of the coverage that you pay for with post-tax dollars as a medical expense, if you itemize your deductions.

Retirement Plans – Although some larger employers may provide a company-funded retirement plan that will pay you a monthly benefit when you retire, most generally offer 401(k) plans with which an employee can save for retirement by making pre-tax contributions up to $19,000 for 2019. and if the employee is age 50 or over, they can qualify to make a catch-up contribution of up to $6,000, bringing the total to $25,000. Some employers also match their employees’ contributions up to a certain amount, which means an employee should endeavor to contribute at least the amount that the employer will match.

Qualified Transportation Fringe Benefits – Certain transportation-related fringe benefits that an employer may provide to employees are tax free to the employee. Prior to the passage of the tax reform in late 2017, employers were able to provide employees with tax-free reimbursement for parking, transit passes, commuter transportation, and bicycle commuting, subject to certain limits, and the employer could deduct the cost. The tax reform had a significant impact on these benefits. It eliminated the $20-per-month bicycle benefit and no longer allows the employer to deduct reimbursements made to employees for other transportation benefits, making some employers less likely to offer any transportation fringe benefits. However, they remain tax-free to the employee; for 2019, the limit on tax-free employer reimbursements is $265 per month each for qualified parking, transit passes, and commuter transportation.

Flexible Spending Account (FSA) – This is a special account established by an employer that allows employees to contribute to the account through salary-reduction contributions. The benefit is that the contributions are pre-tax, meaning the employee doesn’t pay taxes on the money contributed to the account. This allows employees to pay for certain out-of-pocket health care costs with pre-tax dollars. The health care expenses can be used for health plan deductibles, co-payments, and even some over-the-counter-medications. The annual limit on contributions is inflation adjusted and is $2,700 for 2019. However, if you don’t use the money in your FSA, you’ll lose it.

Group Term Life Insurance – The cost for the first $50,000 of group term life insurance (GTLI) coverage provided by an employer is excluded from the employee’s taxable income. However, the employer-paid cost of group term coverage in excess of $50,000 is taxable income to the employee, even if he or she never receives it (i.e., it is “phantom income”). So, while the tax-free coverage of the first $50,000 is a good perk, an employee shouldn’t automatically sign up for more than $50,000 of GTLI coverage without considering whether they truly need the coverage and what the extra cost will be. In some cases, an employee who wants more than $50,000 in coverage may be able to privately acquire a policy that will cost less than the tax on the imputed income for the extra coverage through the employer’s plan.

Qualified Employee Discounts – A certain amount of an employee discount on purchases from an employer or on services provided by an employer is excludable from the employee’s income. The exclusion is limited to the employer’s gross profit percentage for property, or 20% of the price at which the employer sells services to non-employee customers, for services.

Employer-Provided Education Assistance – An employee doesn’t have to include, in his or her income, amounts paid by the employer for educational assistance under a qualified education-assistance program. The maximum amount of educational assistance that an employee can exclude is $5,250 for any calendar year. Excludable assistance under a qualified plan includes, among others, tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. The education is any training that improves an individual’s capabilities, whether or not it is job-related or part of a degree program.

Adoption Expenses – An employee may exclude amounts paid or expenses incurred by the employer for qualified adoption expenses connected to the employee’s adoption of a child, if the amounts are furnished under an adoption-assistance program in existence before the expenses are incurred. If the adopted child is a special needs child, the exclusion applies regardless of whether the employee actually has adoption expenses. The maximum exclusion amount is inflation adjusted annually and is $14,080 for 2019 per child, for both non-special needs and special needs adoptions. The exclusion is phased out when the employee’s modified adjusted gross income is between $211,160 and $251,160 for 2019. Taxpayers can claim a tax credit for qualified adoption expenses, subject to the same phaseout range as for the exclusion, but any excludable employer-paid expenses can’t be used for the credit.

Child and Dependent Care Benefits – Qualified payments made or reimbursed by an employer on behalf of an employee for child and dependent care assistance are excluded from the employee’s gross income. The amount of the exclusion is limited to the lesser of $5,000 ($2,500 for married individuals filing separately), the employee’s earned income, or the income of the employee’s spouse. A child and dependent care tax credit is available to taxpayers, but no credit is allowed to an employee for any amount excluded from income under his or her employer’s dependent care assistance program.

Health Savings Accounts – Employees who have a high-deductible health plan through their employer can open a health savings account (HSA) and make annually inflation-adjusted pre-tax contributions, which, for 2019, can be up to $7,000 for families and $3,500 for a single individual. When distributions are made for medical expenses, the money comes out tax-free. However, distributions not used to pay qualified medical expenses are taxable, and if the plan’s owner is under the age of 65, non qualified distributions are subject to a 20% penalty. Some individuals let the account grow and treat it as a supplemental retirement plan, waiting until after age 65 to begin taking taxable but penalty-free distributions.

If you have questions on how job-related benefits might apply to you or if you are an employer interested in providing any of these benefits to your employees, please give us a call.

Is It Better to Have a Tax Credit or a Deduction?

Article Highlights:

  • Itemized Deductions
  • Above-the-Line Deductions
  • Business Deductions
  • Asset-Sale Deductions
  • Refundable Credits
  • Nonrefundable Credits
  • Carryover Credits
  • Business Tax Credits

People often say that an expense is “a tax write-off”; most everyone interprets this to mean that the expense will have a tax benefit. Generally, such a benefit takes the form of either a deduction or a credit; these benefits’ effects are quite different, however, and each type has various categories. As a result, the tax implications may not be as expected. This is especially true when the write-off claim comes from a salesperson who is touting the tax benefits of a product or service, as such individuals often leave out key details. In general, a deduction reduces taxable income, whereas a credit reduces the tax itself.

Tax Deductions – In one way or another, tax deductions reduce the taxable portion of an individual’s income, which thus reduces the tax on that income.

Itemized Deductions – When taxpayers think of deductions, they typically think of the itemized deductions that are claimed on Schedule A. This is the only way to deduct personal expenses such as medical costs, state and local tax payments, investment and home-mortgage interest, charitable contributions, disaster-casualty losses, and various rarely encountered expenses. In some cases, itemized deductions are limited. For instance, medical expenses are only deductible to the extent they exceed 10% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income (AGI). Similarly, state and local tax payments (including those for income, sales, and property taxes) are capped at $10,000. On top of that, itemization only reduces taxable income to the extent that the total of the itemized deductions exceeds the standard deduction. When the sum does not exceed the standard deduction, the itemized deductible expenses provide no tax benefits at all.

Above-the-Line Deductions – Certain deductions actually reduce income. These are commonly called above-the-line deductions because, when applied, they reduce the income figure that is used to calculate AGI. Thus, their benefits apply regardless of whether the taxpayer uses itemized deductions. Above-the-line deductions include educators’ expenses; contributions to health savings accounts, traditional IRAs, and certain qualified retirement plans; deductible alimony payments; and student-loan interest. Most of these deductions have annual maximums.

Business Deductions – Taxpayers who operate noncorporate businesses can deduct from their business income any expenses that they incur when operating their businesses. These deductions (which cover advertising fees, employee wages, office-supply costs, etc.) are used to reduce profits, which in turn reduces taxable income and, ultimately, income tax. In addition, most self-employed taxpayers pay Social Security and Medicare taxes on their net business income, so any reduction in their business profits also reduces their Medicare taxes and possibly their Social Security taxes.

Asset-Sale Deductions – An individual who sells an asset is allowed to deduct that asset’s cost from the sale price to determine the taxable profit. Good recordkeeping is helpful here because the original expense may have been incurred years prior, even though it is only deductible when the asset is sold. For example, any improvements that an individual makes to a home over years of ownership are not deductible until the home is sold. At that point, the individual can reduce the taxable gain from the sale by counting the improvements as part of the home’s cost.

Tax Credits – Tax credits come in several varieties, and the amount of benefit can vary:

Refundable Credits – A refundable credit offsets current tax liability; it is so called because any amount of unused credit is refunded to the taxpayer. Refundable credits include the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Additional Child Tax Credit, and the Premium Tax Credit (net of any advances received), as well as the American Opportunity Tax Credit (an education credit that is 40% refundable). As a matter of general interest, these credits are subject to significant filing fraud because of their refundability. The IRS also considers prepayments such as income-tax withholding and estimated tax payments to be refundable credits.

Nonrefundable Credits – A nonrefundable credit only offsets tax liability; any unused amount is lost (unless it can be carried over to another year; see below). Over time, Congress has become more generous with credits; most credits that are not refundable now carry over for a given period. Nonrefundable credits include the Saver’s Credit, the Lifetime Learning Credit, and the personal portion of the Electric Vehicle Credit.

Carryover Credits – For some nonrefundable credits, any unused current-year credit can be carried over to the next tax year (or for a longer period) until the carryover amount is used up. These credits include the Adoption Credit (which can carry over for up to five years) and the Home-Solar Credit (which carries over through at least 2021; tax law is unclear on whether it will expire then).

Business-Tax Credits – Numerous business-tax credits are available; however, they are grouped into the General Business-Tax Credit, which is nonrefundable but which carries forward for twenty years and back for one year. (This allows a business owner to amend the prior year’s return so as to claim the credit.) This category includes the business portion of the Electric Vehicle Credit.

If you have questions related to how you might benefit from tax credits or deductions, please call this office.

Are You Subject to Self-Employment Tax?

Article Highlights:

  • Self-employed Individuals
  • Estimated Taxes
  • Self-Employment Tax
  • Estimated Tax Safe Harbors
  • 1099-MISC and 1099-K
  • Others Subject to Self-employment Tax
  • income Not Subject to Self-employment Tax

Self-employed individuals, unlike employees, don’t have someone withholding Social Security or Medicare (FICA) taxes along with pre-payments toward their federal (and state, where applicable) income tax from their wages during the year.

They are not being paid a wage; instead, a self-employed individual must keep a set of books showing income and expenses associated with their self-employed business that will allow them to determine their taxable profits (or losses). While an employer and an employee each pay half of the FICA taxes due on an employee’s wages, a self-employed person pays 100% of these taxes, termed the self-employment tax or SE tax for short, on his or her self-employment profit. If the individual has more than one self-employment activity, the net profits and losses from all of the self-employment activities are combined to determine the amount of the SE tax. However, two spouses have self-employment income, the couple cannot combine their SE incomes when figuring their individual SE tax.

Estimated Taxes – Since self-employed taxpayers don’t have taxes withheld on their self-employment income, they need to pay estimated taxes quarterly based upon their taxable profits for the quarter and, after the first quarter of the year, taking into account prior quarterly profits and estimated taxes already paid for the year. These estimated taxes are paid with an IRS Form 1040-ES and include the taxpayer’s income and SE taxes. In lieu of filing Form 1040-ES and sending a check to the U.S. Treasury, the payments can be made online through the IRS’s website or by using the government’s Electronic Federal Tax Payment System (EFTPS), which allows payments to be scheduled up to a year in advance, by having payments automatically withdrawn from the individual’s bank account at specified dates. The payments are due April 15, June 15, September 15, and January 15. If the due date falls on a weekend day or legal holiday, the due date will be the next business day. And if you didn’t notice, the second “quarter” is two months, and the third one is four months: one of many quirks in our tax system.

Self-Employment Tax – All self-employed taxpayers who have more than $400 in net profit from their self-employment must pay self-employment tax, which is made up of Social Security tax of 12.4% on the first $132,900 (2019) of profit from the business and a 2.9% Medicare tax on all of the profits. In addition, there is an additional 0.9% Medicare tax to the extent the profits exceed $200,000 for single taxpayers, $250,000 for married taxpayers filing jointly, and $125,000 for married taxpayers filing separately. In addition, half of the self-employment tax can be deducted from gross income. There are special rules for determining the self-employment taxes for farmers and fishermen. If a self-employed taxpayer pre-pays less than 90% of his or her current year’s tax liability, including Social Security and Medicare taxes for the year, then the taxpayer can be subject to a penalty that assesses interest on underpayments by the quarter.

Estimated-Tax Safe Harbors – However, rather than having to determine their quarterly profits and estimate their income tax and SE tax liabilities, some self-employed individuals instead opt to use a quarterly safe-harbor-payments method allowed by the IRS, which avoids the underpayment penalty if used correctly. There are two safe harbors available:

  1. 100% of the prior year’s tax liability paid evenly for each quarter, provided the prior year’s adjusted gross income was $150,000 or less ($75,000 if using the filing status of married filing separate).
  2. 110% of the prior year’s tax liability paid evenly for each quarter if the prior year’s adjusted gross income was greater than $150,000 ($75,000 if filing married filing separate).

The underpayment penalty does not apply if the final amount due on an individual’s tax return is less than $1,000. The penalty also does not apply if a taxpayer did not have a prior year tax liability for a full 12-month year.

One thing to consider when deciding whether or not to use the safe harbor method is that because the safe harbor estimates are not based on the current year’s profits, a self-employed individual could be in for an unexpected substantial tax liability at tax time. Or, if their current year’s income is significantly less than it was in the prior year, they could be overpaying their current year tax and be eligible for a large refund when they file their current-year return. If an overpayment results, all or part of it can be applied to the next year’s estimated taxes, instead of the taxpayer receiving a refund payment.

Also remember that tax pre-payments are not just based on the self-employment income and must factor in all other taxable income, including investment income, retirement income, the self-employed individual’s wages from other work, and a spouse’s wages or self-employment income, as well as account for withholding from other sources.

1099-MISC and 1099-K – Generally, a self-employed individual keeps track of his or her own income but may also receive one or more 1099-MISC forms issued by a customer showing the amount of self-employment income paid by the customer. If that income has already been accounted for in the business’s income records, it should not be included again. Also, beginning in 2021 for earnings received in 2020, Form 1099-NEC will be used in place of the 1099-MISC to report nonemployee compensation.

Self-employed individuals that take credit card payments for sales of their business products or services use third parties to settle the transaction and return payment to the self-employed individual. To combat fraud, the IRS requires all third-party network transactions to be reported on Form 1099-K if the amount is $20,000 or more and the number of transactions is 200 or more. Again, the sales should have already been included as income and should not be included a second time.

Others Subject to Self-Employment Tax – Besides self-employed individuals having to pay SE tax on their trade or business income, the SE tax also applies to other situations:

  • Member of the Clergy – A housing allowance paid to a member of the clergy is generally excludable from taxable income, but it is subject to self-employment tax.
  • Partnership Distributions – If a taxpayer is a general partner of a partnership that carries out a trade or business, his or her distributive share of the partnership’s income is self-employment income and subject to self-employment tax, as are guaranteed payments to partners.
  • Foreign Self-Employment Income – If a taxpayer qualifies for excluding foreign-earned self-employment income, the income is still subject to self-employment tax.
  • Agricultural Co-op Payments to Retired Farmers – Even when retired from daily farming activities, taxpayers who are still contractually obligated to supply an agricultural commodity to the agricultural cooperative of which they remain a member are considered to be in a trade or business of producing, marketing, processing, and selling the commodity. The “value-added” payments received from the co-op are subject to self-employment tax.
  • Director Fees – Fees received for the performance of services as a director of a corporation, including a director attending a meeting, are self-employment income and subject to self-employment tax.
  • Fishing Boat Crew Members – Members of a fishing boat crew are self-employed when they are compensated solely from the proceeds of the sale of the boat’s catch.
  • Executors and Administrators (Fiduciaries) – A person who administers the estate of a deceased person is subject to SE tax if (a) the person is a professional fiduciary or (b) the person is a nonprofessional fiduciary who manages an estate that includes an active trade or business or manages an estate that required extensive management activities over a long period of time.

Income Not Subject to Self-Employment Tax – Income from an occasional act or transaction, absent proof of efforts to continue those acts or transactions on a regular basis, isn’t income from self-employment subject to the self-employment tax. In addition, the following are some sources of income as well as individuals not subject to self-employment tax.

  • A shareholder’s portion of an S corporation’s taxable income.
  • Fees for the services of a notary public.
  • Non-resident aliens
  • The fiduciary of an estate on an isolated basis
  • Rents paid in crop shares
  • Real estate rental income
  • Statutory employees
  • A self-employed taxpayer’s child employee under the age of 18.

So just because a taxpayer receives a 1099-MISC (or 1099-NEC, beginning in 2021) does not mean that the taxpayer is subject to self-employment tax. Please call this office with questions related to self-employment tax.

Earned Income Tax Credit: Used, Abused and Altered

Article Highlights:

  • Purpose of the Earned Income Tax Credit
  • Qualifications
  • Earned Income
  • Qualified Child
  • Credit Phaseout
  • Computing the Credit
  • Investment Income Limit
  • Combat Pay Election
  • Fraud
  • Safeguards

Any discussion of the earned income tax credit (EITC) needs to begin with a discussion of why Congress created it in the first place. It has a twofold purpose: first, as an incentive for people to work and get off public assistance, and second, to provide financial assistance for low-income taxpayers and their families based upon their income from working, which the tax code refers to as “earned income.” When originally created back in 1979, it even allowed taxpayers to obtain the credit in advance through their employer’s payroll payments, based on projecting the credit they would be entitled to on their tax return for the year. This was referred to as advanced EITC. However, because of the many problems associated with the advanced payment credit, it was repealed for years after 2010.

The EITC is a refundable credit, meaning if any unused credit remains after offsetting all of a taxpayer’s tax liability, that remainder is refunded to the taxpayer. This refundable feature has made the EITC a giant target for fraud, which is discussed later in this article. In addition to the other requirements discussed below, the EITC is not allowed to married couples filing separately, nor can the taxpayer claiming the credit be a dependent of another taxpayer. In addition, the taxpayer must have been a U.S. citizen or resident alien all year and have a Social Security Number (SSN). Any children used to qualify the taxpayer for the credit are also required to have a SSN. Furthermore, because this credit is meant for lower-income individuals, if a taxpayer is working overseas and is able to exclude foreign earned income, he or she is barred from claiming the EITC. Taxable Earned Income – As previously mentioned, the EITC is based, in part, on the amount of a taxpayer’s (or in the case of a married couple, both a filer’s and a spouse’s) taxable earned income. For example, taxable earned income includes:

  • Wages, salaries, and tips;
  • Union strike benefits;
  • Long-term disability benefits prior to minimum retirement age; and
  • Earnings from self-employment.

Taxable earned income does not include any form of earned income that is excluded from income, such as a clergyperson’s housing allowance, excluded military combat pay (but see the election for combat pay later), tax-deferred retirement contributions, or excludable dependent care benefits.

Qualified Children – The EITC is also based upon the number of the taxpayer’s qualified children who lived with the taxpayer in the United States for more than half of the year for which the credit is being claimed. Generally, for EITC purposes, a qualified child must be younger than the taxpayer and be under the age of 19 or a full-time student under the age of 24 who had the same principal place of abode as the taxpayer for more than half of the tax year and is not married and filing a joint return (exceptions may apply).

For the EITC, “child” is defined as the taxpayer’s:

  • Son, daughter, adopted child, stepchild, eligible foster child, or a descendant of any of them (for example, a grandchild); or
  • Brother, sister, half-brother, half-sister, stepbrother, stepsister, or a descendant of any of them (for example, a niece or nephew).

Exceptions to the residency requirement include temporary absences from the home, such as for school, vacations, illness, and military service.

Computing the Credit and Phaseout – The amount of the EITC increases as the earned income increases until it reaches the maximum credit amount, and then it phases out as the taxpayer’s modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) increases above the phaseout threshold. The following table illustrates how the credit is determined and the maximum amount of the credit for 2019.

Number of Qualifying Children Credit Percentage Earned Income Maximum Credit
None 7.65 $6,920 $529
One 34.00 $10,370 $3,526
Two 40.00 $14,570 $5,828
Three or more 45.00 $14,570 $6,557

If a taxpayer has no qualifying children, the taxpayer must be age 25 or older but under the age of 65 before the end of the year. This is to prevent children and retired individuals from claiming the credit. As can be seen from the table above, the credit for a taxpayer who doesn’t have a qualifying child is significantly less than for someone with one or more children.

Example #1: Ted and Jane have two qualifying children, and their only income is Ted’s wages (earned income) of $31,738. From the table above, based on two children, we determine their EITC before the phase-out as being the lesser of $12,695 (40% of $31,738) or $5,828 (the maximum for taxpayers with two qualifying children). Thus, in this case, the EITC before phaseout is $5,828.

Phaseout – The tax law limits the EITC to lower-income taxpayers by phasing out (reducing) the credit as a taxpayer’s MAGI increases above a threshold, with the credit fully phased out when the MAGI reaches the complete phaseout amount shown in the table below.

Number of Qualifying Children Phaseout Percentage Phaseout Threshold Complete Phaseout
None 7.65 Joint Filers: $14,450
Others: $8,650
One 15.98 Joint Filers: $24,820
Others: $19,030
Two 21.06 Joint Filers: $24,820
Others: $19,030
Three or more 21.06 JointFilers:$24,820
Others: $19,030


Example #2: Using Ted and Jane fromexample #1, who have two qualifying children, we had determined that their EITC before phaseout was $5,828. The next step is to determine their credit after phaseout. We do that using the chart above, and for a married couple with two qualified children, the phaseout threshold begins at $24,820 and the phaseout percentage is 21.06%. Ted and Jane’s only income was Ted’s wages, so their MAGI is also $31,738. Their MAGI exceeds the phaseout threshold by $6,918 ($31,738 – $24,820). Multiplying that amount by the 21.06 phaseout percentage equals $1,457, which is the amount of the EITC that will be phased out. Thus, Ted and Jane’s EITC for 2019 will be $4,371 ($5,828 − $1,457).

Each year, the IRS develops credit look-up tables that take into account the taxpayer’s filing status, number of qualifying children, earned income, MAGI, and phaseout, so that the math we did in the above example is not needed.

Investment Income Limit – Congress further limited the credit so that taxpayers with substantial financial assets will not qualify for the credit. A taxpayer’s income from investments is used as a gauge for financial assets, and for 2019, taxpayers with investment income of $3,600 or more are disqualified from the credit.

Special Election for Combat Pay – Military members can elect to include their nontaxable combat pay as earned income for the credit. If that election is made, then the military member must include in his or her earned income all nontaxable combat pay received. If spouses are filing a joint return and both spouses received nontaxable combat pay, then each one can make a separate election.

Fraud – As mentioned earlier, the EITC is also a target of major fraud by unscrupulous tax preparers and ID thieves. In fact, the fraud has been so prevalent that the IRS has developed procedures, and Congress has passed tax laws, to combat the abuse.

One of the major areas of fraud was scammers filing returns with stolen IDs and phony income as soon as the IRS began accepting e-filed returns around the end of January. Filing early prevented the IRS from verifying the reported income because employers were not required to file W-2s and 1099s until the end of February. That also minimized the chances that the individuals whose IDs the fraudsters were using would file before them and cause the IRS to reject the return. In fact, many scammers would file married joint returns using the names and SSNs of two unrelated individuals, taking advantage of the IRS’s privacy policies; thus, if one of the victims contacted the IRS, the IRS would be unable to communicate with the individual because the victim would not know the name or SSN of the other filer on the bogus joint tax return. Of course, the income reported on the fraudulent returns was an amount meant to maximize the EITC and minimize the phaseout. The scammers also took advantage of the automatic refund deposit feature and had the refunds deposited into bank accounts that they opened in the names of the individuals whose IDs they were using on the fraudulent returns. Once the refunds were deposited into the accounts, the accounts were quickly cleaned out, leaving absolutely no trace of the scammers who were rarely caught. However, in a notable case in Florida, the scammer got away with millions of dollars in bogus credits and would not have ever been caught had she not bragged about her exploits online.

The IRS has since altered its return-processing procedures and plugged that hole, by not issuing refunds that include the EITC until after mid-February. The filing due dates for W-2s and 1099s have been moved up to January 31, giving the IRS adequate time to verify the earned income before issuing the refunds.

The IRS has also established the Identity Protection Specialized Unit to assist taxpayers who have been victims of ID theft. These taxpayers can file their returns by using an Identity Protection PIN provided annually by the IRS. Taxpayers who are or suspect they are victims of ID theft can call the IRS at 877-438-4338 for assistance.

Safeguards – Congress has also included consequences for taxpayers who have been found to abuse the EITC rules and has included mandatory taxpayer identification procedures for tax preparers.

  • Taxpayers – For taxpayers who recklessly or intentionally disregard the EITC rules, the IRS can make them ineligible for the credit in the two subsequent years, and if fraud is involved, the suspension period can be for ten years.
  • Tax Preparers – Tax preparers are required to follow mandated EITC due diligence procedures that require them to complete an EITC due diligence check sheet and verify the identity of anyone claiming the EITC before a return can be filed. Failure to adhere to these safeguards can result in a $530 tax-preparer penalty for each failure to comply with the due diligence requirements.

Many taxpayers who legitimately qualify for this credit are failing to claim it because they don’t fully understand the credit. For instance, the IRS estimates that 1.5 million taxpayers don’t realize that taxable long-term retirement benefits received before reaching minimum retirement age qualify as earned income, making them eligible for the EITC. The IRS also estimates that between 20 and 25 percent of the individuals who qualify for the EITC don’t claim it.

If you have questions about your qualifications for this credit or need help amending or filing a prior year’s return to claim the credit, please give us a call.

October Extended Due Date Just Around the Corner

Article Highlights:

  • October 15 is the extended due date for filing federal individual tax returns for 2018.
  • Late-filing penalty
  • Interest on tax due.
  • Other October 15 deadlines.

If you could not complete your 2018 tax return by the normal April filing due date and are now on extension, that extension expires on October 15, 2019. Failure to file before the extension period runs out can subject you to late-filing penalties.

There are no additional extensions (except in designated disaster areas), so if you still do not or will not have all of the information needed to complete your return by the extended due date, please call this office so that we can explore your options for meeting your October 15 filing deadline.

If you are waiting for a K-1 from a partnership, S-corporation, or fiduciary return, the extended deadline for those returns is September 16 (September 30 for fiduciary returns). So, you should probably make inquiries if you have not received that information yet.

Late-filed individual federal returns are subject to a penalty of 5% of the tax due for each month, or part of a month, for which a return is not filed, up to a maximum of 25% of the tax due. If you are required to file a state return and do not do so, the state will also charge a late-file penalty. The filing extension deadline for individual returns is also October 15 for most states.

In addition, interest continues to accrue on any balance due, currently at the rate of 5% per year. This rate is subject to adjustment quarterly.

If this office is waiting for some missing information to complete your return, we will need that information at least a week before the October 15 due date. Please call this office immediately if you anticipate complications related to providing the needed information, so that a course of action may be determined to avoid the potential penalties.

Additional October 15, 2019 Deadlines – In addition to being the final deadline to timely file 2018 individual returns on extension, October 15 is also the deadline for the following actions:

  • FBAR Filings – Taxpayers with foreign financial accounts, the aggregate value of which exceeded $10,000 at any time during 2018, must file electronically with the Treasury Department a Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) Form 114, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR). The original due date for the 2018 report was April 15, but individuals have been granted an automatic extension to file until October 15, 2019.
  • SEP-IRAs – October 15, 2019 is the deadline for a self-employed individual to set up and contribute to a SEP-IRA for 2018. The deadline for contributions to traditional and Roth IRAs for 2018 was April 15, 2019.
  • Special Note – Disaster Victims – If you reside in a Presidentially declared disaster area, the IRS provides additional time to file various returns and make payments.

Please call this office for extended due dates of other types of filings and payments and for extended filing dates in disaster areas.

Who Claims the Children You or Your Ex-Spouse?

Article Highlights:

  • Custodial Parent
  • Dependency Release
  • Joint Custody
  • Tiebreaker Rules
  • Child’s Exemption
  • Head of Household Filing Status
  • Tuition Credit
  • Child Care Credit
  • Child Tax Credit
  • Earned Income Tax Credit

If you are a divorced or separated parent with children, a commonly encountered but often misunderstood issue is who claims the child or children for tax purposes. This is sometimes a hotly disputed issue between parents; however, tax law includes some very specific but complicated rules about who profits from the child-related tax benefits. At issue are a number of benefits, including the children’s dependency, child tax credit, child care credit, higher-education tuition credit, earned income tax credit, and, in some cases, even filing status.

This is actually one of the most complicated areas of tax law, and inexperienced tax preparers or taxpayers preparing their own returns can make serious mistakes, especially if the parents are not communicating well. If parents will cooperate with each other, they often can work out the best tax result overall, even though it may not be the best for them individually, and compensate for it in other ways.

Physical Custody (Custodial Parent) – If a family court awards physical custody of a child to one parent, tax law is very specific in awarding that child’s dependency to the parent with physical custody, regardless of the amount of child support provided by the other parent. However, the custodial parent may release that dependency to the non-custodial parent for tax purposes by completing the appropriate IRS form. The release can be granted on a yearly basis or for multiple years at one time. But once made, it is binding for the specified period.

CAUTION – The decision to relinquish dependency should not be taken lightly, as it impacts a number of tax benefits.

Joint Custody – On the other hand, if the family court awards joint physical custody, only one of the parents may claim the child as a dependent for tax purposes. If the parents cannot agree between themselves as to who will claim the child and the child is actually claimed by both, the IRS tiebreaker rules will apply. Per the tiebreaker rules, the child is treated as a dependent of the parent with whom the child resided for the greater number of nights during the tax year; or if the child resides with both parents for the same amount of time during the tax year, the parent with the higher adjusted gross income will claim the child as a dependent. Parents in the process of divorcing should be aware that for tax purposes, the IRS’s rules as to who can claim a child’s dependency takes precedence over what a divorce decree says or what a judge may have ruled. So, for example, if the family court awards full custody of a child to Parent A but says that Parent B can claim the child as a tax dependent, the IRS’s position is that the child is a tax dependent of Parent A unless Parent A releases the dependency to Parent B, as explained above.

Child’s Exemption Allowance –While there is no longer (through 2025) a monetary tax deduction (also referred to as an exemption allowance) for a dependent child, it still matters who claims the child as a dependent because certain tax credits are only available to the taxpayer claiming the child as a dependent.

Head of Household Filing Status – An unmarried parent can claim the more favorable head of household, rather than single, filing status if he or she is the custodial parent and pays more than half of the costs of maintaining, as his or her home, a household that is the child’s principal place of abode for more than half the year. This is true even when the child’s dependency is released to the non-custodial parent.

Tuition Credit – If the child qualifies for either the American Opportunity or the Lifetime Learning higher-education tax credit, the credit goes to whoever claims the child as a dependent. Credits are significant tax benefits because they reduce the tax amount dollar-for-dollar, while deductions reduce income to arrive at taxable income, which is then taxed according to the individual’s tax bracket. For instance, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) provides a tax credit of up to $2,500, of which 40% is refundable. However, both education credits phase out for higher-income taxpayers. For instance, the AOTC phases out between $80,000 and $90,000 for unmarried taxpayers and $160,000 and $180,000 for married taxpayers.

Child Care Credit – A nonrefundable tax credit is available to the custodial parent for child care while the parent is gainfully employed or seeking employment. To qualify for this credit, the child must be under the age of 13 and be a dependent of the parent. However, a special rule for divorced or separated parents provides that if the custodial parent releases the child’s exemption to the non-custodial parent, the custodial parent can still qualify to claim the child care credit, and it cannot be claimed by the noncustodial parent.

Child Tax Credit – A $2,000 credit is allowed for a child under the age of 17. That credit goes to the parent claiming the child as a dependent. However, this credit phases out for higher-income parents, beginning at $200,000 for unmarried parents and $400,000 for married parents filing jointly.

Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) – Lower-income parents with earned income (wages or self-employment income) may qualify for the EITC. This credit is based on the number of children (under age 19 or a full-time student under age 24) the custodial parent has, up to a maximum of three children. Releasing the dependency of a child or of children to the noncustodial parent will not disqualify the custodial parent from using the children to qualify for the EITC. In fact, the noncustodial parent is prohibited from claiming the EITC based on the child or children whose dependency has been released by the custodial parent.

As you can see, some complex rules apply to the tax benefits provided by the children of divorced parents. It is highly recommended that you consult this office to prepare your return. If you are the custodial parent, you should also consult with this office before deciding whether to release a child as a tax dependent.