Sweet Child of Mine: Tax Credits for Parents
More and more parents can't afford to pay for child care. College tuition is always on the rise, and the general costs of living are harder to cover as the national economy struggles to right itself. Parents, however, may find some help at tax time. There are credits for education, child care and for simply having children.
"If you have really low income and you are single, you can get an earned income credit as long as you have wages," says Barbara Steponkus of the National Association of Tax Professionals.
Most of the tax breaks for parents pertain to child care and education, but the easiest break of all is to simply have children. The Child Tax Credit provides up to $1,000 for every child under 17 in your care if you meet certain income requirements. Those filing a joint return will see the amount of the credit begin to phase out if their adjusted gross income exceeds $110,000. The phase-out starts at $75,000 for single parents.
The number of children you have also figures into your eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit, which can significantly reduce the amount of tax you owe. In 2012, you are eligible for the credit if you have three or more children and earned less than $45,060 as a single person, or $50,270 as a married couple filing jointly. The income thresholds then drop according to the number of children you have.
"If you have really low income and you are single, you can get an earned income credit as long as you have wages," says Barbara Steponkus, an Edgerton, Wisconsin-based board member with the National Association of Tax Professionals. "If you have one child, you can make more money. If you have two children, you can make more money yet (and still qualify)."
Parents may also get a break if they're spending a lot of money on child care. As of 2011, child care could cost more than $18,000 a year, according to the National Association of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies. The answer for that is the child and dependent care credit, which will cover up to 35 percent of child-care expenses, or up to $3,000 for a child under 13. A second child may also qualify you for up to $3,000. Both credits depend on your income.
Also, your employer may exclude up to $5,000 from your taxable wages for child-care expenses.
"If you have one child, that's a great way to get it because you get $5,000 instead of only $3,000," Steponkus said.
The employer deduction may not be added on top of the child and dependent care credit, so it's not as sweet if you have more than one child. All things being equal, credits against taxes owed are preferable to deductions from taxable income, Steponkus says. That’s because a tax credit is applied dollar-for-dollar to your taxes owed, rather than simply reducing the amount of income that can be taxed.
A slew of tax benefits are available if you're putting your children through school. Some states offer benefits for parents paying for parochial-school tuition and supplies for children in kindergarten through high school.
"But everything in a federal return is just for college (or other post-secondary education)," said Jo Ann Schoen of Rochester, Minnesota, treasurer for the National Association of Tax Professionals.
As with child care, federal education benefits come in the forms of credits and deductions. These benefits do not overlap, however, so you must know which ones you are eligible for and which to claim.
The American Opportunity Credit is available through 2012. It allows for a credit of up to $2,500 for tuition and related expenses for each of the first four years attending college at least half-time. Individuals who earn no more than $80,000 and couples earning no more than $160,000 are eligible for the full American Opportunity Credit, which basically expands on and replaces the Hope Credit. The credit phases out over the next $10,000 ($20,000 married filing jointly) of income.
The Hope Credit had lower income limits, a maximum credit of $1,800, did not cover books and other supplies, and was good only for the first two years of college. These rules are likely to go back into place if the American Opportunity Credit expires at the end of 2012.
The Lifetime Learning Credit has lower income limits and applies to students in non-degree and career skills training programs. Eligibility for the Lifetime Learning Credit is capped at $61,000 for single filers and $122,000 for couples filing jointly. The maximum benefit is $2,000. Also, the Lifetime Learning Credit is available on a per-household basis. The American Opportunity Credit is available on a per-student basis.
There are other key differences to consider when choosing between the American Opportunity Credit and the Lifetime Learning Credit. The Lifetime Learning Credit doesn’t take into account felony drug convictions, is available year after year, and requires enrollment in only one course. The first 40 percent (up to $1,000) of the American Opportunity Credit is refundable, which means you can receive that amount even if your tax is zero.
"They split it out when you actually go through the tax form," Steponkus said. When you use TurboTax to prepare your taxes, we’ll recommend the credit that gives you the best tax outcome.
If you don’t claim either of the education tax credits, you still have the option to deduct up to $4,000 of tuition and fees. The income limits for the tuition and fees deduction are $80,000 for single taxpayers and $160,000 for married couples filing jointly.
Qualified tuition plans, or 529 plans, offer yet another way to save on taxes while providing for your child’s education. A 529 plan is not a deduction or a credit. It’s a shelter. The state-by-state 529 plans authorized by the Internal Revenue Service allow you to invest and earn interest on the funds without subjecting you to federal income taxes. In many cases, it also wipes out state income taxes.
Jo Ann Schoen, treasurer for the National Association of Tax Professionals, says "529 plans are a good way of starting that nest egg for college."
You must ensure that the withdrawals are spent on eligible education expenses, including tuition and room and board. Otherwise, you’ll get hit with income taxes after the money is spent. The Securities and Exchange Commission recommends you assess your overall financial situation before starting a 529 plan. After all, there's no point in depositing money into a restricted account for future savings if you're presently struggling to pay the bills.