Education

Tax lesson for teachers: Educator expenses can be written off

Westchester NY accountant Paul Herman of Herman & Company CPA’s is here for all your financial needs. Please contact us if you have questions, and to receive your free personal finance consultation!

By Bankrate

tax deductions for teachers

Teachers on average spend $530 of their own money during the school year to pay for supplies, snacks for students and other classroom items.

Teachers and other educators can get a tax deduction of up to $250 for some of those costs as well as continuing education expenses.

Even better, they don’t have to itemize to get the tax break. Educator expenses are one of the so-called above-the-line deductions claimed directly on a Form 1040 or via tax software.

Educator expenses deduction enhanced

Congress made the tax break for educators a permanent part of the tax code in 2015.

Lawmakers also indexed the $250 maximum deduction amount for inflation. It didn’t change for the 2016 tax year, because of low inflation, but it could increase in future years.

What items are deductible?

Besides teachers, counselors, principals and aides can take the deduction if, for the tax year, they were employed at a state-approved public or private school system from kindergarten through grade 12, and worked at least 900 hours during the school year.

Educators can write off unreimbursed costs for:

  • Books
  • Supplies
  • Computer and other equipment (including software and services)
  • Supplementary materials used in the classroom
  • Professional development programs

The IRS also applies its “ordinary and necessary” rule here. An item purchased for your classroom must be considered ordinary:  something that is common and accepted in the education profession.

It also must be necessary: defined as helpful and appropriate, though maybe not required.

So buying a recording of “Death of a Salesman” to help drive home Arthur Miller’s points to your students would likely meet tax muster. But purchasing a new HD television, instead of watching on your school’s working-but-old set, may raise some IRS eyebrows.

Couples who share education careers could get a double break if they file jointly. However, each spouse is limited to $250 of qualified expenses.

What about home schooling? Sorry, but the tax law specifically states that costs for this type of instruction don’t count toward the educator expenses deduction.

Circumstances could limit expenses

In addition to the eligibility requirements on expenses, the IRS has set some other restrictions on what’s deductible.

The tax agency says when an educator uses any tax-favored funds to pay for his or her own schooling, those amounts must be subtracted from the total the teacher claims under the educator expenses deduction.

Take for example Joe Jones, a high school English teacher who is working toward his master’s degree in literature during school breaks. He cashed in savings bonds to pay his tuition and excluded the bonds’ $150 interest from tax. He also spent $200 for books on Shakespeare to distribute to his 11th-grade students. He must subtract the $150 in tax-free interest from the $200 for the books, leaving him only $50 to claim under the educator expenses deduction.

The same rule applies to nontaxable earnings a teacher gets from qualified state tuition programs or tax-free withdrawals from a Coverdell education savings account.

Paul S. Herman CPA, a tax expert for individuals and businesses, is the founder of Herman & Company, CPA’s PC in White Plains, New York.  He provides guidance and strategies to improve clients’ financial well-being.

Updating Beneficiary Designations & Benefits of Health Savings Accounts (HSA)

The importance of updating beneficiary designations

Health Savings AccountsMost of us have more than enough to do. We’re on the go from early in the morning until well into the evening — six or seven days a week. Thus, it’s no surprise that we may let some important things slide. We know we need to get to them, but it seems like they can just as easily wait until tomorrow, the next day, or whenever.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision reminds us that sometimes “whenever” never gets here and the results can be tragic. The case involved a $400,000 employer-sponsored retirement account, owned by William, who had named his wife, Liv, as his beneficiary in 1974 shortly after they married. The couple divorced 20 years later. As part of the divorce decree, Liv waived her rights to benefits under William’s employer-sponsored retirement plans. However, William never got around to changing his beneficiary designation form with his employer.

When William died, Liv was still listed as his beneficiary. So, the plan paid the $400,000 to Liv. William’s estate sued the plan, saying that because of Liv’s waiver in the divorce decree, the funds should have been paid to the estate. The Court disagreed, ruling that the plan documents (which called for the beneficiary to be designated and changed in a specific way) trumped the divorce decree. William’s designation of Liv as his beneficiary was done in the way the plan required; Liv’s waiver was not. Thus, the plan rightfully paid $400,000 to Liv.

The tragic outcome of this case was largely controlled by its unique facts. If the facts had been slightly different (such as the plan allowing a beneficiary to be designated on a document other than the plan’s beneficiary form), the outcome could have been quite different and much less tragic. However, it still would have taken a lot of effort and expense to get there. This leads us to a couple of important points.

If you want to change the beneficiary for a life insurance policy, retirement plan, IRA, or other benefit, use the plan’s official beneficiary form rather than depending on an indirect method, such as a will or divorce decree.

It’s important to keep your beneficiary designations up to date. Whether it is because of divorce or some other life-changing event, beneficiary designations made years ago can easily become outdated.

One final thought regarding beneficiary designations: While you’re verifying that all of your beneficiary designations are current, make sure you’ve also designated secondary beneficiaries where appropriate. This is especially important with assets such as IRAs, where naming both a primary and secondary beneficiary can potentially allow payouts from the account to be stretched out over a longer period and maximize the time available for the tax deferral benefits to accrue.

The many benefits of a Health Savings Account (HSA)

A Health Savings Account (HSA) represents an opportunity for eligible individuals to lower their out-of-pocket health care costs and federal tax bill. Since most of us would like to take advantage of every available tax break, now might be a good time to consider an HSA, if eligible.

Herman & Company CPA’s proudly serves Bedford Hills NY, Chappaqua NY, Harrison NY, Scarsdale NY, White Plains NY, Mt. Kisco NY, Pound Ridge NY, Greenwich CT and beyond.

An HSA operates somewhat like a Flexible Spending Account (FSA) that employers offer to their eligible employees. An FSA permits eligible employees to defer a portion of their pay, on a pretax basis, which is used later to reimburse out-of-pocket medical expenses. However, unlike an FSA, whatever remains in the HSA at year end can be carried over to the next year and beyond. In addition, there are no income phaseout rules, so HSAs are available to high-earners and low-earners alike.

Naturally, there are a few requirements for obtaining the benefits of an HSA. The most significant requirement is that an HSA is only available to an individual who carries health insurance coverage with a relatively high annual deductible. For 2015, the individual’s health insurance coverage must come with at least a $1,300 deductible for single coverage or $2,600 for family coverage. For many self-employed individuals, small business owners, and employees of small and large companies alike, these thresholds won’t be a problem. In addition, it’s okay if the insurance plan doesn’t impose any deductible for preventive care (such as annual checkups). Other requirements for setting up an HSA are that an individual can’t be eligible for Medicare benefits or claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return.

Individuals who meet these requirements can make tax-deductible HSA contributions in 2015 of up to $3,350 for single coverage or $6,650 for family coverage. The contribution for a particular tax year can be made as late as April 15 of the following year. The deduction is claimed in arriving at adjusted gross income (the number at the bottom of page 1 on your return). Thus, eligible individuals can benefit whether they itemize or not. Unfortunately, however, the deduction doesn’t reduce a self-employed person’s self-employment tax bill.

When an employer contributes to an employee’s HSA, the contributions are exempt from federal income, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment taxes.

An account beneficiary who is age 55 or older by the end of the tax year for which the HSA contribution is made may make a larger deductible (or excludible) contribution. Specifically, the annual tax-deductible contribution limit is increased by $1,000.

An HSA can generally be set up at a bank, insurance company, or other institution the IRS deems suitable. The HSA must be established exclusively for the purpose of paying the account beneficiary’s qualified medical expenses. These include uninsured medical costs incurred for the account beneficiary, spouse, and dependents. However, for HSA purposes, health insurance premiums don’t qualify.

College Students: The Gray Area of Exemptions

Westchester NY accountant Paul Herman of Herman & Company CPA’s is here for all your financial needs. Please contact us if you have questions, and to receive your free personal finance consultation!  

There’s still time to take advantage of last-minute, tax-saving moves for dependency exemptions. For 2014, there are bigger dependency exemptions, as well as rules that, in some cases, are dauntingly complex. Read the below article by Julian Block from Accounting Web!

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The 2014 exemption is worth $3,950, up from the 2013 figure of $3,900. But you can’t take an exemption for an individual who is eligible to be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s return. An example: No exemption for a child on the child’s return when he or she can be claimed on the parent’s return.

The basic rules haven’t changed: To claim a 2014 exemption for a dependent, you must furnish more than half of the dependent’s total support for the year or, under a multiple support agreement, more than 10 percent. Generally, the exemption is lost if a dependent’s reportable income for 2014 surpasses $3,950. However, only income from taxable sources counts. Funds received by a dependent from tax-exempt sources like Social Security benefits, inheritances and gifts don’t count.

But there’s a break: Assuming you meet the support test, the tax code sets no limit on the amount of a dependent’s reportable income when your child is either (1) under age 19 at the close of 2014 or (2) a full-time college student who spends at least five months of the year in school and won’t reach the age of 24 by the close of 2014. Note, though, that the income cap does apply when your college-attending child has income above $3,950 and will be 24 by 2014′s close.

Some strategies. Are you supporting a son or daughter in college? In some cases, you need to remind your child to bank part of his or her earnings or to spend some money on nonsupport items; meanwhile, you take care of support items like food, lodgings, clothing, education, medical and dental care, recreation, transportation and similar necessities. Why? Because that maneuver might enable you to pass the support test and get the exemption for 2014.

Count as support the “fair rental value” of the lodgings you provide for a child living with you; add a reasonable allowance for use of telephone, electricity, furnishings, appliances and the like. “Fair rental value,” says the IRS, is the amount you could reasonably expect to receive from a stranger for the same kind of lodgings, not the rent or real estate taxes, mortgage interest, an so on, paid by you that’s attributable to the space involved. Also include the value of a year-round room you maintain for an away-at-college child and the food you provide while he or she is at home during a school recess.

Don’t count a scholarship in calculating total support. It makes no difference that your child actually uses the award for education and other support items. As for GI Bill benefits and the proceeds from college loans secured by the student, they are support the child provides. But any loan for a child’s education secured by you is support you furnish.

The IRS strictly defines “student.” Your son or daughter must be enrolled on a full-time basis for a minimum of five months in the calendar year in an educational institution with a regular faculty, an established curriculum, and an organized student body.

The IRS authorizes no exceptions to the five-month rule. But your child doesn’t have to be enrolled for five consecutive months or even five full months.

An example: Clarice Lecter registers for a full-time course load in January, with classes to run from February through May. With that time span, Clarice satisfies the time requirement, provided she completes the semester.

The IRS allows her to include some night attendance as part of a full-time course of study. But the agency cautions that if Clarice attends exclusively at night, she must enroll for the number of hours or classes that’s considered full-time attendance.

Just how inflexible the agency is on the time stipulation is underscored by an IRS ruling that was sought by the parents of a 19-year-old student who dropped out of school after four months following hospitalization for a nervous breakdown. He was unable to return to school for the remainder of the year. The verdict: No exception from the five-month requirement, regardless of the son’s reason for leaving school. Consequently, the parents couldn’t claim an exemption for him.

Herman and Company CPA’s proudly serves Bedford Hills NY, Chappaqua NY, Harrison NY, Scarsdale NY, White Plains NY, Mt. Kisco NY, Pound Ridge NY, Greenwich CT and beyond.

 

Any U.S. tax advice contained in the body of this website is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by the recipient for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed under the Internal Revenue Code or applicable state or local tax law provisions.