Student loan interest: Can you deduct it on your tax return?

student loan interest

The economic impact of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is unprecedented and many taxpayers with student loans have been hard hit.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act contains some assistance to borrowers with federal student loans. Notably, federal loans were automatically placed in an administrative forbearance, which allows borrowers to temporarily stop making monthly payments. This payment suspension is scheduled to last until September 30, 2020.

Tax deduction rules

Despite the suspension, borrowers can still make payments if they choose. And borrowers in good standing made payments earlier in the year and will likely make them later in 2020. So can you deduct the student loan interest on your tax return?

The answer is yes, depending on your income and subject to certain limits. The maximum amount of student loan interest you can deduct each year is $2,500. The deduction is phased out if your adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds certain levels.

For 2020, the deduction is phased out for taxpayers who are married filing jointly with AGI between $140,000 and $170,000 ($70,000 and $85,000 for single filers). The deduction is unavailable for taxpayers with AGI of $170,000 ($85,000 for single filers) or more. Married taxpayers must file jointly to claim the deduction.

Other requirements

The interest must be for a “qualified education loan,” which means debt incurred to pay tuition, room and board, and related expenses to attend a post-high school educational institution. Certain vocational schools and post-graduate programs also may qualify.

The interest must be on funds borrowed to cover qualified education costs of the taxpayer, his or her spouse or a dependent. The student must be a degree candidate carrying at least half the normal full-time workload. Also, the education expenses must be paid or incurred within a reasonable time before or after the loan is taken out.

It doesn’t matter when the loan was taken out or whether interest payments made in earlier years on the loan were deductible or not. And no deduction is allowed to a taxpayer who can be claimed as a dependent on another taxpayer’s return.

The deduction is taken “above the line.” In other words, it’s subtracted from gross income to determine AGI. Thus, it’s available even to taxpayers who don’t itemize deductions.

Document expenses

Taxpayers should keep records to verify eligible expenses. Documenting tuition isn’t likely to pose a problem. However, take care to document other qualifying expenditures for items such as books, equipment, fees, and transportation. Documenting room and board expenses should be simple if a student lives in a dormitory. Students who live off campus should maintain records of room and board expenses, especially when there are complicating factors such as roommates.

Contact us if you have questions about deducting student loan interest or for information on other tax breaks related to paying for college.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

COVID-19 Assistance Provisions | A brief recap

COVID-19 Assistance Provisions

In the midst of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Americans are focusing on their health and financial well-being. To help with the impact facing many people, the government has provided a range of relief. Here is a recap of some of the announcements made by the IRS.

More deadlines extended

As you probably know, the IRS postponed the due dates for certain federal income tax payments — but not all of them. New guidance now expands on the filing and payment relief for individuals, estates, corporations, and others.
Under IRS Notice 2020-23, nearly all tax payments and filings that would otherwise be due between April 1 and July 15, 2020, are now postponed to July 15, 2020. Most importantly, this would include any fiscal year tax returns due between those dates and any estimated tax payments due between those dates, such as the June 15 estimated tax payment deadline for individual taxpayers.

Economic Impact Payments for nonfilers

You have also likely heard about the cash payments the federal government is making to individuals under certain income thresholds. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act will provide an eligible individual with a cash payment equal to the sum of: $1,200 ($2,400 for eligible married couples filing jointly) plus $500 for each qualifying child. Eligibility is based on adjusted gross income (AGI).

On its Twitter account, the IRS announced that it deposited the first Economic Impact Payments into taxpayers’ bank accounts on April 11. “We know many people are anxious to get their payments; we’ll continue issuing them as fast as we can,” the tax agency added.

The IRS has announced additional details about these payments:

  • “Eligible taxpayers who filed tax returns for 2019 or 2018 will receive the payments automatically,” the IRS stated. Automatic payments will also go out to those people receiving Social Security retirement, survivors or disability benefits and Railroad Retirement benefits.
  • There’s a new online tool on the IRS website for people who didn’t file a 2018 or 2019 federal tax return because they didn’t have enough income or otherwise weren’t required to file. These people can provide the IRS with basic information (Social Security number, name, address and dependents) so they can receive their payments.

This only describes new details in a couple of the COVID-19 assistance provisions. Members of Congress are discussing another relief package so additional help may be on the way. We’ll keep you updated. Contact us if you have tax or financial questions during this challenging time.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Reasons why married couples might want to file separate tax returns

oint-or-separate-tax-returns

Married couples often wonder whether they should file joint or separate tax returns. The answer depends on your individual tax situation.

It generally depends on which filing status results in the lowest tax. But keep in mind that, if you and your spouse file a joint return, each of you is “jointly and severally” liable for the tax on your combined income. And you’re both equally liable for any additional tax the IRS assesses, plus interest and most penalties. This means that the IRS can come after either of you to collect the full amount.

Although there are provisions in the law that offer relief, they have limitations. Therefore, even if a joint return results in less tax, you may want to file separately if you want to only be responsible for your own tax.

In most cases, filing jointly offers the most tax savings, especially when the spouses have different income levels. Combining two incomes can bring some of it out of a higher tax bracket. For example, if one spouse has $75,000 of taxable income and the other has just $15,000, filing jointly instead of separately can save $2,512.50 for 2020.

Filing separately doesn’t mean you go back to using the “single” rates that applied before you were married. Instead, each spouse must use “married filing separately” rates. They’re less favorable than the single rates.
However, there are cases when people save tax by filing separately. For example:

One spouse has significant medical expenses.

For 2019 and 2020, medical expenses are deductible only to the extent they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI). If a medical expense deduction is claimed on a spouse’s separate return, that spouse’s lower separate AGI, as compared to the higher joint AGI, can result in larger total deductions.

Some tax breaks are only available on a joint return.

The child and dependent care credit, adoption expense credit, American Opportunity tax credit and Lifetime Learning credit are only available to married couples on joint returns. And you can’t take the credit for the elderly or the disabled if you file separately unless you and your spouse lived apart for the entire year. You also may not be able to deduct IRA contributions if you or your spouse were covered by an employer retirement plan and you file separate returns. You also can’t exclude adoption assistance payments or interest income from series EE or Series I savings bonds used for higher education expenses.

Social Security benefits may be taxed more.

Benefits are tax-free if your “provisional income” (AGI with certain modifications plus half of your Social Security benefits) doesn’t exceed a “base amount.” The base amount is $32,000 on a joint return, but zero on separate return (or $25,000 if the spouses didn’t live together for the whole year).

No hard and fast rules

The decision you make on your federal tax return may affect your state or local income tax bill, so the total tax impact should be compared. There’s often no simple answer to whether a couple should file separate returns. A number of factors must be examined. We can look at your tax bill jointly and separately. Contact us to prepare your return or if you have any questions.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Determining whether you need to file gift tax returns can be tricky

gift tax returns

For 2020, the lifetime gift and estate tax exemption has reached a whopping $11.58 million ($23.16 million for married couples). As a result, few people will be subject to federal gift taxes.

If your wealth is well within the exemption amount, does that mean there’s no need to file gift tax returns? Not necessarily. There are many situations in which it’s necessary (or desirable) to file Form 709 — “United States Gift (and Generation-Skipping Transfer) Tax Return” — even if you’re not liable for any gift taxes.

If you’re required to file, keep in mind that the deadline for Form 709 is April 15 of the year after you make a gift.

All gifts are taxable, except . . .

The federal gift tax regime begins with the assumption that all transfers of property by gift (including below-market sales or loans) are taxable, and then sets forth several exceptions. Some of the nontaxable transfers that need not be reported on Form 709 include:

  • Gifts of present interests (see below) within the annual exclusion amount (currently, $15,000 per donee),
  • Deductible charitable gifts, and
  • Gifts to one’s U.S.-citizen spouse, either outright or to a trust that meets certain requirements.

If all your gifts for the year fall into these categories, no gift tax return is required. But other types of gifts may be taxable — and must be reported on Form 709 — even if they’re shielded from tax by the lifetime exemption.

Traps to avoid

If you make gifts during the year, consider whether you’re required to file Form 709. And watch out for these common traps:

Future interests.

The $15,000 annual exclusion applies only to present interests, such as outright gifts. Gifts of future interests, such as transfers to a trust for a donee’s benefit, aren’t covered, so you’re required to report them on Form 709 even if they’re less than $15,000.

Spousal gifts.

As previously noted, gifts to a U.S.-citizen spouse need not be reported on Form 709. However, if you make a gift to a trust for your spouse’s benefit, the trust must 1) provide that your spouse is entitled to all the trust’s income for life, payable at least annually, 2) give your spouse a general power of appointment over its assets, and 3) not be subject to any other person’s power of appointment. Otherwise, the gift must be reported.

Gift splitting.

Spouses may elect to split a gift to a child or other donee, so that each spouse is deemed to have made one-half of the gift, even if one spouse wrote the check. This allows married couples to combine their annual exclusions and give up to $30,000 to each donee. To make the election, the donor spouse must file Form 709, and the other spouse must sign a consent or, in some cases, file a separate gift tax return.

To file or not to file

To keep from running afoul of the IRS, it’s critical to know when you need to file a gift tax return. We can help you in that determination.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.

Cents-per-mile rate for business miles decreases slightly for 2020

mileage rate

This year, the optional standard mileage rate used to calculate the deductible costs of operating an automobile for business decreased by one-half cent, to 57.5 cents per mile. As a result, you might claim a lower deduction for vehicle-related expense for 2020 than you can for 2019.

Calculating your deduction

Businesses can generally deduct the actual expenses attributable to business use of vehicles. This includes gas, oil, tires, insurance, repairs, licenses and vehicle registration fees. In addition, you can claim a depreciation allowance for the vehicle. However, in many cases depreciation write-offs on vehicles are subject to certain limits that don’t apply to other types of business assets.

The cents-per-mile rate comes into play if you don’t want to keep track of actual vehicle-related expenses. With this approach, you don’t have to account for all your actual expenses, although you still must record certain information, such as the mileage for each business trip, the date and the destination.

Using the mileage rate is also popular with businesses that reimburse employees for business use of their personal vehicles. Such reimbursements can help attract and retain employees who drive their personal vehicles extensively for business purposes. Why? Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct unreimbursed employee business expenses, such as business mileage, on their own income tax returns.

If you do use the cents-per-mile rate, be aware that you must comply with various rules. If you don’t, the reimbursements could be considered taxable wages to the employees.

The rate for 2020

Beginning on January 1, 2020, the standard mileage rate for the business use of a car (van, pickup or panel truck) is 57.5 cents per mile. It was 58 cents for 2019 and 54.5 cents for 2018.
The business cents-per-mile rate is adjusted annually. It’s based on an annual study commissioned by the IRS about the fixed and variable costs of operating a vehicle, such as gas, maintenance, repair and depreciation. Occasionally, if there’s a substantial change in average gas prices, the IRS will change the mileage rate midyear.

Factors to consider

There are some situations when you can’t use the cents-per-mile rate. In some cases, it partly depends on how you’ve claimed deductions for the same vehicle in the past. In other cases, it depends on if the vehicle is new to your business this year or whether you want to take advantage of certain first-year depreciation tax breaks on it.

As you can see, there are many factors to consider in deciding whether to use the mileage rate to deduct vehicle expenses. We can help if you have questions about tracking and claiming such expenses in 2020 — or claiming them on your 2019 income tax return.

About the author

Brady is the owner of Ramsay & Associates. He specializes in financial statement preparation and personal, fiduciary and corporate tax and accounting.

His professional experience includes seven years' experience for local and national CPA firms before joining Ramsay & Associates in 2006.

He has a Bachelor of Accounting degree from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He is a Certified Public Accountant, a member of the Minnesota Society of CPA's, an Eagle Scout, as well as an active volunteer in the community.