Tuesday, March 8, 2011

10 Tax Mistakes Parents Often Make

Being a parent is a challenging job. At tax time, parents have an additional challenge of deciphering the tax code to properly handle income, deductions, and credits that relate to their children. Our previous blog dealt in depth with education tax issues. This article deals with some overall areas that parents tend to navigate with difficulty.

10 Tax Mistakes Parents Often Make
Kimberly Palmer

Excerpt from USNews.com

Between sleep deprivation and hectic schedules, parents don't always have time to decipher the tax code. That means many of them lose out on potential savings in the form of tax credits, deductions, and tax-advantaged savings plans. We interviewed tax experts on the most common mistakes that parents make when they do their taxes. Here are the top 10:

Failing to quickly get a Social Security number for a new child:
Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst for the tax firm CCH, says that even newborns need Social Security numbers right away. Hospitals make it easier by helping new parents with the paperwork, but parents are still responsible for making sure they get the number and use it correctly when filing taxes. Otherwise, Luscombe says, the IRS could disallow some of the tax benefits.

Luscombe adds that parents themselves need to make sure they have their correct Social Security number on their tax forms. This can be especially challenging for people who recently got married, changed their names, and requested a new number. "If the name on the tax return and the Social Security number don't match up, the IRS gets concerned," he says.

Omitting the dependent exemption for babies born at the end of the year:
Even babies born on December 31 provide their parents an entire year's worth of exemption status. "You don't have to apportion it to the time the baby was alive," explains Barbara Weltman, attorney and author of J.K. Lasser's 1001 Deductions and Tax Breaks 2011. She adds that even high-income tax payers get the full value of the exemption this year.

Overlooking the adoption credit:
This credit, which can be worth about $13,000, is designed to alleviate some of the expenses associated with adopting a child. But because adoption often takes more than one year and involves many types of expenses, parents can get overwhelmed with the paperwork. Bob Meighan, vice president of TurboTax, recommends keeping careful track of receipts, then filing for the credit the year of the adoption.

Forgetting to keep careful records of care providers:
Many working parents are eligible for the child and dependent tax credit, which can help ease some of the costs of daycare, babysitters, and after-school programs for children younger than 13. What often trips parents up, says Luscombe, is that they forget to record the tax ID or Social Security numbers of the care providers throughout the year. Without that information, they can't file for the tax credit. "If you've had a succession of babysitters and have no Social Security numbers, then you could lose out on part of the credit for not doing your homework," he says.

Stacey Bradford, author of The Wall Street Journal's Financial Guidebook for New Parents, adds that summer day camp fees also count if both parents are working, looking for work, or studying, as long as the child is under age 13.

Claiming something other than head of household status:
Single parents in particular often forget to claim head of household status, which provides certain tax advantages, including the ability to claim dependents. "There's a lot of confusion about the head of household filing status and a lot of people don't seem to understand what that means," says Luscombe. Single parents could be eligible for this status if they paid more than half the cost of maintaining their household throughout the year and live with their children for more than half the year.

Ignoring the child tax credit:
The child tax credit, which is worth up to $1,000, phases out for higher earners, but most taxpayers qualify for it, says Meighan. It applies to children under age 17 who live with the parent claiming the credit for more than half the year.

Not filing taxes for an older child with a part-time job:
"Parents forget that an older child might have a tax filing requirement," says Meighan, even if that child is still a dependent. And failing to file that older child's taxes could mean losing out on a refund, because teens often don't earn enough to have any tax liability, even though their employers have withheld taxes. "To get that money back, they have to file a return," adds Meighan.

Failing to take advantage of tax-advantaged savings plans:
Most adults have never heard of 529 college savings accounts, which allow parents to invest after-tax money and grow it tax-free as long as they use it to pay for tuition. Coverdell education savings accounts, which come with strict contribution limits ($2,000 a year) as well as income limits, also offer tax advantages. Similarly, many parents forget to put pre-tax money aside (up to $5,000) into flexible spending accounts offered through their employer to pay for childcare expenses.

Skipping education write-offs:
From the American Opportunity Credit to the Lifetime Learning Credit, there are many tax benefits that help alleviate some of the cost of paying for college. Parents often forget that they can claim student loan interest on their own taxes if the college student is still a dependent--even if the college student is the one paying the loan interest, says Meighan.

Bradford adds that many parents don't realize that a number of states allow deductions for contributions to college savings plans. In New York, she says, residents can write off $5,000 for single filers and $10,000 for married joint filers. She suggests checking savingforcollege.com to see if you qualify.

Repeating classic errors that all taxpayers make:
Eric Smith, IRS spokesman, says the most common errors include forgetting to sign returns, just one spouse signing it, forgetting to attach a W-2 form, failing to use enough postage, and writing the name and address on the mailing envelope illegibly. "Take advantage of computer technology, and most of those mistakes go away," he says.

Kimberly Palmer (@alphaconsumer) is the author of the new book Generation Earn: The Young Professional's Guide to Spending, Investing, and Giving Back.

Circular 230 notification - Any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in this document was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Education tax benefits: A report card

While Congress extended the reduced individual income tax rates with passage of the Tax Relief, Unemployment Insurance Reauthorization, and Job Creation Act of 2010 (2010 Tax Relief Act) in late 2010, it also extended several educational tax benefits as well through 2012. As families plan their upcoming tax year, it is important to keep these benefits in mind.

American Opportunity Tax Credit

Individuals may continue to claim a credit against their federal tax liability based on tuition payments and certain related expenses. Previously referred to as the Hope Credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) remains available for taxpayers for the 2011 and 2012 tax years. Qualifying families may claim an annual tax credit of up to $2,500 for undergraduate college expenses, up to $10,000 for a four-year program. According to a recently-issued report, Treasury predicts that 9.4 million families will be able to claim a total of $18.2 billion AOTC credits in 2011, an average of $1,900 per family.

Lifetime learning credit

Taxpayers can claim the lifetime learning credit for post-high school education, as well as courses to acquire or improve job skills. These institutions include colleges, universities, vocational schools, and any other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The lifetime learning credit is limited to $2,000 per eligible student, based upon payment of tuition and other qualified expenses.

The IRS released Tax Tip 2010-12 reminding taxpayers that they cannot claim both the lifetime learning credit and the AOTC for one child in a single tax year. However, if the family has multiple children in college, the family may apply the credits on a "per-student, per-year basis." This means that the family with two children in college, for example, could claim the AOTC for one child and the lifetime learning credit for the other.

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended the increased maximum contribution amount to Coverdell education savings accounts. Taxpayers may contribute a maximum of $2,000 per year to these tax-preferred accounts. Earnings on these contributions grow tax-free, while amounts subsequently withdrawn are excludable from gross income to the extent used for qualified educational expenses.

Educational assistance programs

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended taxpayers' annual exclusion of up to $5,250 in employer-provided educational assistance from their gross income. The exclusion applies to both gross income for federal income tax purposes, as well as wages for employment tax purposes.

Federal Scholarships with Service requirements

The 2010 Tax Relief Act continues the gross income exclusion for scholarships with obligatory service requirements received by candidates at certain qualified educational organizations. The exclusion applies to scholarships granted by the National Health Service Corps Scholarship Program or the F. Edward Hebert Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship and Financial Assistance Program.

Qualified Tuition and Expense Deduction

The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extends the above-the-line deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses through 2011. The deduction applies to tuition and fees paid for the enrollment of the taxpayer, the taxpayer's spouse, or any dependent for which the taxpayer is entitled to a dependency exemption. Taxpayers can not claim both one of the education tax credits and the tuition and expense deduction in a single year. These continue to be either/or tax breaks.

Student loan interest deduction

Finally, after the student graduates, they may still claim an educational tax benefit by repaying their educational loans. Within certain adjusted gross income limits, taxpayers may claim a deduction for interest paid on student loans. The 2010 Tax Relief Act extends favorable limits on this deduction. Through 2012, the law extended the increased modified adjusted gross income phase-out ranges, meaning more taxpayers can claim the deduction. The 2010 Tax Relief Act also extended the repeal of the 60-month limit on deductible payments.

Circular 230 notification - Any U.S. federal tax advice that is contained in this document was not intended or written to be used by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed on the taxpayer by the Internal Revenue Service, and it cannot be used by any taxpayer for such purpose.