In McCarville, TC Summary Opinion 2016-14 (4/4/16), M was a student at Arizona State University from August 2008 to graduation in May 2012. M paid his spring 2012 tuition of $4,895 on 12/18/11 although it was not due until January 25, 2012. He had already paid his fall 2011 tuition of the same amount on 8/6/11. In spring 2012, his only expense was textbook rental of $247. M claimed a $2,500 American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) on his 2012 Form 1040A which also included wages from his part-time job. Form 8863, Education Credits (American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits), was attached to the return.
ASU did not issue M a Form 1098-T for 2012 (likely because the tuition was paid in 2011). The IRS disallowed the AOTC claimed on the 2012 return. (It was easy for the IRS to spot because there was no Form 1098-T.)
At trial, the IRS acknowledged that M was entitled to an AOTC for 2012 of $247. The court agreed.
Observation: M’s problem was that he paid his 2012 tuition in 2011 when he had already paid $4,895 of tuition earlier that year, which caused him to reach his maximum AOTC of $2,500. While paying spring 2012 tuition two weeks early (in 2011) easily seems like a 2012 item to a layperson, the tax law is strict.
What guidance is available to students and their parents to avoid problems and maximize the AOTC? The 7 pages of instructions to Form 8863, Education Credits (American Opportunity and Lifetime Learning Credits), note that the payment must be in the year the credit is claimed. Many universities also include basic information and IRS links on their website about education credits.
Query: If instead of 2012, the year was 2016, is M unable to claim a $247 AOTC? Remember, he won't have a 1098-T (because he paid nothing to the university in that year)? If this is the case, hopefully the IRS can correct this problem such as by requiring the university to note on the Form 1098-T $0 paid to the institution, but that the person was a student there for the spring semester. Or perhaps Congress needs to modify the law to allow claiming of the textbooks and other related expenses that are not paid directly to the university. That could be noted on Form 8863. However, it seems contrary to congressional intent in requiring a Form 1098-T, which serves to show that the student actually attends a college.
What do you think?