Slash college bills with tax benefits

Woman Excited About Graduating

(ARA) — Other than buying a home and automobile, a college education is one of the biggest investments Americans typically make. On average, in-state tuition and fees at a four-year public college increased by more than 8 percent to $8,244 for the 2011-2012 academic year, and room and board now averages more than $17,000 per year.

Fortunately, you may be able to cut your college costs at income tax time with a variety of credits, deductions and savings plans.

The American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits are likely to result in the biggest tax rewards on your tax year 2011 federal return due April 17, 2012. The following basic requirements apply to both credits:

  • Filing status on the return cannot be "married filing separately."
  • The student must be you, your spouse or a dependent for whom you claim an exemption.
  • A dependent cannot claim the credits if claimed on another person's (e.g. parents') return.
  • If you do not claim the dependent exemption (even if entitled to the exemption), you cannot claim a credit based on that dependent's expenses.
  • Claim credits on Form 8863 and file with your Federal 1040.

In addition, both credits cannot be claimed for the same student, Jessi Dolmage, spokeswoman for TaxACT, explains. "If multiple students are claimed on a return, the taxpayer should choose the credit that yields the biggest benefit for each student."

The American Opportunity Credit is a modified version of the Hope Credit. It's worth up to $2,500 for tuition, fees and course materials per student for the first four years of postsecondary education. Even if you have zero tax liability, you can get up to 40 percent as a refund. It phases out at higher incomes.

The Lifetime Learning Credit is worth up to 20 percent of the first $10,000 in higher education expenses per family for an unlimited number of years. Like the American Opportunity Credit, it phases out at higher incomes.

Several other college and higher education tax breaks can also be claimed on this year's federal tax returns.

Up to $2,500 in student loan interest paid each year for qualified higher education expenses can be deducted, even if you don't itemize. The deduction phases out at higher incomes and is reduced by non-taxable distributions from a Coverdell Education Savings Account, savings bond interest used for education expenses and scholarships or veteran's education benefits. Married taxpayers filing separately and people claimed as a dependent on another return don't qualify.

Additional exceptions may apply to the aforementioned tax breaks, and other educational tax benefits exist for Qualified Tuition Programs, student loan cancellations and repayment assistance, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, education savings bonds, employer-provided educational assistance and work-related education. Learn more about all education tax benefits in Publication 970 at www.irs.gov.

You can also use TaxACT's College Tax Whiz, a free interactive tool that breaks down 10 college tax benefits at www.taxact.com/college-tax-whiz. It explains the tax benefit, acceptable expenses, types of education and other key qualifiers in a question and answer format.

"College tax breaks can be tricky to navigate, but tax preparation solutions like TaxACT Free Federal Edition make it easy, " says Dolmage. "The program will guide you through all education tax breaks and determine the best credit or deduction for each student." Learn more about TaxACT at www.taxact.com.

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Upcoming Tax Dates

February 1 — Individuals who must make estimated tax payments
If you did not pay your last installment of estimated tax by January 15, you may choose (but are not required) to file your income tax return (Form 1040) for 2015 by February 1. Filing your return and paying any tax due by February 2 prevents any penalty for late payment of the last installment. If you cannot file and pay your tax by February 1, file and pay your tax by April 18.

February 1 — All Employers
Give your employees their copies of Form W2 for 2015. If an employee agreed to receive Form W2 electronically, have it posted on a website and notify the employee of the posting.

February 1 — Payers of gambling winnings
If you either paid reportable gambling winnings or withheld income tax from gambling winnings, give the winners their copies of Form W2G.

February 1 — Nonpayroll taxes
File Form 945 to report income tax withheld for 2015 on all nonpayroll items, including backup withholding and withholding on pensions, annuities, IRAs, gambling winnings, and payments of Indian gaming profits to tribal members. Deposit or pay any undeposited tax under the accuracy of deposit rules.

February 1 — Social Security, Medicare, and withheld income tax
File Form 941 for the fourth quarter of 2015. Deposit or pay any undeposited tax under the accuracy of deposit rules. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the quarter timely, properly, and in full, you have until February 10 to file the return.

February 1 — Certain small employers
File Form 944 to report social security and Medicare taxes and withheld income tax for 2015. Deposit or pay any undeposited tax under the accuracy of deposit rules. If your tax liability is $2,500 or more for 2015 but less than $2,500 for the fourth quarter, deposit any undeposited tax or pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full, you have until February 10 to file the return.

February 1 — Farm employers
File Form 943 to report social security and Medicare taxes and withheld income tax for 2015. Deposit or pay any undeposited tax under the accuracy of deposit rules. If your tax liability is less than $2,500, you can pay it in full with a timely filed return. If you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full, you have until February 10 to file the return.

February 1 — Federal unemployment tax
File Form 940 for 2015. If your undeposited tax is $500 r less, you can either pay it with your return or deposit it. If it is more than $500, you must deposit it. However, if you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full, you have until February 10 to file the return.

February 1 — All businesses
Give annual information statements to recipients of certain payments you made during 2015 - Details

February 1 — Form 720 taxes
File Form 720 for the fourth quarter of 2015.

February 1 — Wagering tax
File Form 730 and pay the tax on wagers accepted during December 2015.

February 1 — Heavy highway vehicle use tax
File Form 2290 and pay the tax for vehicles first used in December 2015.

February 10 — Nonpayroll taxes
File Form 945 to report income tax withheld for 2015 on all nonpayroll items. This due date applies only if you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full.

February 10 — Social security, Medicare, and withheld income tax
File Form 941 for the fourth quarter of 2015. This due date applies only if you deposited the tax for the quarter timely, properly, and in full.

February 10 — Certain small employers
File Form 944 to report social security and Medicare taxes and withheld income tax for 2015. This due date applies only if you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full.

February 10 — Farm employers
File Form 943 to report social security and Medicare taxes and withheld income tax for 2015. This due date applies only if you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full.

February 10 — Federal unemployment tax
File Form 940 for 2015. This due date applies only if you deposited the tax for the year timely, properly, and in full.

February 10 — Employees who work for tips
If you received $20 or more in tips during January, report them to your employer - Details

February 10 — Communications and air transportation taxes under the alternative method
Deposit the tax included in amounts billed or tickets sold during the first 15 days of January.

February 12 — Regular method taxes
Deposit the tax for the last 16 days of January.

February 15 — Everyone
Federal Holiday (Washington's Birthday) - Details

February 16 — Individuals
If you claimed exemption from income tax withholding last year on the Form W-4, you must file a new Form W-4 by this date to continue your exemption for another year - Details

February 16 — All businesses
Give annual information statements to recipients of certain payments you made during 2015 - Details

February 16 — Publication 509 (2015)
All payments reported on Form 1099S, Proceeds From Real Estate Transactions. Substitute payments reported in box 8 or gross proceeds paid to an attorney reported in box 14 of Form 1099MISC.

February 16 — Social security, Medicare, and withheld income tax
If the monthly deposit rule applies, deposit the tax for payments in January.

February 16 — Nonpayroll withholding
If the monthly deposit rule applies, deposit the tax for payments in January.

February 17 — All employers
Begin withholding income tax from the pay of any employee who claimed exemption from withholding in 2015, but did not give you Form W4 to continue the exemption this year.

February 25 — Communications and air transportation taxes under the alternative method
Deposit the tax included in amounts billed or tickets sold during the last 16 days of January.

February 29 — Regular method taxes.
Deposit the tax for the first 15 days of February.

February 29 — All businesses
File information returns (for example, Forms 1099) for certain payments you made during 2015.

February 29 — Farmers & fishermen
File your 2015 income tax return (Form 1040) and pay any tax due - Details

February 29 — Payers of gambling winnings.
File Form 1096 along with Copy A of all the Forms W2G you issued for 2015. If you file Forms W2G electronically, your due date for filing them with the IRS will be extended to March 31. The due date for giving the recipient these forms remains February 1.

February 29 — All employers
File Form W3, Transmittal of Wage and Tax Statements, along with Copy A of all the Forms W2 you issued for 2015. If you file Forms W2 electronically, your due date for filing them with the SSA will be extended to March 31. The due date for giving the recipient these forms remains February 1.

February 29 — Large food and beverage establishment employers
File Form 8027, Employer's Annual Information Return of Tip Income and Allocated Tips. Use Form 8027T, Transmittal of Employer's Annual Information Return of Tip Income and Allocated Tips, to summarize and transmit Forms 8027 if you have more than one establishment. If you file Forms 8027 electronically, your due date for filing them with the IRS will be extended to March 31.

February 29 — Wagering tax
File Form 730 and pay the tax on wagers accepted during January.

February 29 — Heavy highway vehicle use tax
File Form 2290 and pay the tax for vehicles first used in January.

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