The Lifetime Learning Tax Credit—What It Is and How to Qualify

This Federal Tax Credit is Worth Up to $2,000 Per Year

Students talking in class
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The Lifetime Learning tax credit is equal to 20 percent of the first $10,000 in tuition expenses you pay per year, up to a maximum credit of $2,000. You must have at least $10,000 in qualified expenses in a given year to claim the whole $2,000 credit. If you spend just $5,000, your credit would reduce to $1,000, or 20 percent of that amount.

You can claim the Lifetime Learning credit if you, your spouse, or any of your dependents are enrolled at an eligible educational institution, and if you were responsible for paying those college costs. $10,000 is the collective cap. You can't claim a credit for each student.

The Lifetime Learning credit isn't restricted to the first four years of undergraduate enrollment, and the student doesn't necessarily have to attend full time. You might still be eligible if she took only one class.

What's an Eligible Educational Institution?

All accredited colleges and universities qualify as eligible educational institutions. Vocational schools and other post-secondary institutions are also eligible. You can use tuition paid to the school for claiming the Lifetime Learning credit if the learning institution is eligible to participate in federal student aid programs through the U.S. Department of Education.

What Are Qualified Expenses?

Qualifying expenses include amounts paid for tuition and any required fees such as registration and student body fees. They do not include books, supplies, equipment, room and board, insurance, student health fees, transportation, or living expenses.

You must be contractually on the hook for paying these costs and fees—the bills come to you. You must reduce your qualifying expenses by the amount of any financial assistance received from grants, scholarships, or reimbursements, but you don't have to reduce them if you pay college tuition using borrowed funds. This includes student loans or gifts from family members.

Who Can Claim the Education Credits?

If your son or daughter is your dependent, is going to college, and if you're paying for it, you can claim the education credit on your tax return. If your child is paying for her own education, she can claim education credits on her tax return unless you claim her as a dependent.

You can't claim the Lifetime Learning credit if you pay college expenses for someone who isn't your dependent, and you can't claim it if you're married but filing a separate tax return. Non-resident aliens can't claim the credit if they don't elect to be treated as resident aliens for tax purposes.

Income Limitations

The amount of the Lifetime Learning credit you can claim begins to phase out at certain income limits.

The amount of your tax credit isn't reduced if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is below the phase-out limit, but it will be reduced if your income is more. MAGI thresholds in 2019 are $58,000 for single or head of household filers, or $116,000 for those who are married and filing jointly.

The credit can't be claimed by single or head of household filers with MAGIs exceeding $68,000, or $136,000 for joint filers.

Comparison With the Tuition and Fees Tax Deduction

The tuition and fees tax deduction is similar to the Lifetime Learning credit in that both are available to any student taking college classes or other post-secondary education, regardless of whether they're studying full- or part-time. But the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 only renewed the tuition and fees deduction retroactively through the end of 2017, and it's unknown if it will be resuscitated again for 2018 or in future years.

You can't claim the Lifetime Learning Credit and the tuition and fees deduction as well,

Comparison With the American Opportunity Tax Credit

The American Opportunity tax credit is restricted to the first four years of undergraduate classes. The Lifetime Learning credit is available for any level of post-secondary education—undergraduate, graduate, extension courses, or even vocational schools.

You can't claim both the Lifetime Learning credit and the American Opportunity credit for the same student in the same year, but you can claim the Lifetime Learning credit for one student and the American Opportunity credit for another.

The American Opportunity credit can often be greater, so taxpayers typically only claim the Lifetime Learning credit when they're unable to claim the American Opportunity Credit due to its enrollment restrictions.

The American Opportunity Credit begins phasing out for single taxpayers with MAGIs of $80,000 and $160,000 for married couples filing jointly. Those with MAGIs of $90,000 or $180,000 respectively aren't eligible to claim it. This is a somewhat larger income range compared to the Lifetime Learning credit.

Up to 40 percent of the American Opportunity credit is refundable. If you have any credit left over after it reduces your tax owed to zero, you'll receive a refund for up to 40 percent of the total credit. The Lifetime Learning credit isn't refundable. It can bring any tax you might owe down to zero, but the IRS will keep the rest.

The American Opportunity credit is primarily geared towards four-year degree programs. The student must also have no felony drug convictions. Having a felony conviction also does not preclude a student from qualifying for the Lifetime Learning credit.

How to Claim the Lifetime Learning Credit

Claiming the Lifetime Learning credit requires filing IRS Form 8863 with your tax return. Completing Parts III and IV of this form will help you figure out the amount of credit you can claim.

Tax laws change periodically and you should always consult with a tax professional for the most up-to-date advice. The information contained in this article is not intended as tax advice and it is not a substitute for tax advice.