College Students: The Gray Area of Exemptions

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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.

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.

About the author:

Julian Block writes and practices law in Larchmont, New York, and was formerly with the IRS as a special agent (criminal investigator) and an attorney. More on this topic is available from "Julian Block's Year Round Tax Strategies", available at julianblocktaxexpert.com.

About Julian Block

Julian Block

Attorney and author Julian Block is frequently quoted in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. He has been cited as “a leading tax professional” (New York Times), an “accomplished writer on taxes” (Wall Street Journal), and “an authority on tax planning” (Financial Planning magazine). More information about his books can be found at julianblocktaxexpert.com

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