Column: 5 Common Mistakes – Applying for Financial Aid & Year-End Donations
By Michael J. Smeriglio, III CPA
Given the astronomical cost of college, even well-off parents should consider applying for financial aid. A single misstep, however, can harm your child’s eligibility. Here are five common mistakes to avoid:
1. Presuming you don’t qualify. It’s difficult to predict whether you’ll qualify for aid, so apply even if you think your net worth is too high. Keep in mind that, generally, the value of your principal residence or any qualified retirement assets isn’t included in your net worth for financial aid purposes.
2. Filing the wrong forms. Most colleges and universities, and many states, require you to submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for need-based aid. Some schools also require it for merit-based aid. In addition, a number of institutions require the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE®, and specific types of aid may have their own paperwork requirements.
3. Missing deadlines. Filing deadlines vary by state and institution, so note the requirements for each school to which your child applies. Some schools provide financial aid to eligible students on a first-come, first-served basis until funding runs out, so the earlier you apply, the better. This may require you to complete your income tax return early.
4. Failing to list schools properly. The FAFSA allows you to designate up to 10 schools with which your application will be shared. The order in which you list the schools doesn’t matter when applying for federal student aid. But if you’re also applying for state aid, it’s important to know that different rules may apply. For example, some states require you to list schools in a specified order.
5. Mistaking who’s responsible. If you’re divorced or separated, the FAFSA should be completed by the parent with whom your child lived for the majority of the 12-month period ending on the date the application is filed. This is true regardless of which parent claims the child as a dependent on his or her tax return.
The rule provides a significant planning opportunity if one spouse is substantially wealthier than the other. For example, if the child lives with the less affluent spouse for 183 days and with the other spouse for 182 days, the less affluent spouse would file the FAFSA, improving eligibility for financial aid.
Ensuring Your Year-End Donations Are Tax-Deductible
Many people make donations at the end of the year. To be deductible on your 2017 return, a charitable donation must be made by December 31, 2017. According to the IRS, a donation generally is “made” at the time of its “unconditional delivery.” But what does this mean?
Is it the date you write a check or charge an online gift to your credit card? Or is it the date the charity actually receives the funds? In practice, the delivery date depends in part on what you donate and how you donate it. Here are a few common examples:
• Checks: the date you mail it.
• Credit cards: the date you make the charge.
• Pay-by-phone accounts. The date the financial institution pays the amount.
• Stock certificates. The date you mail the properly endorsed stock certificate to the charity.
To be deductible, a donation must be made to a “qualified charity” — one that’s eligible to receive tax-deductible contributions. The IRS’s online search tool, “Exempt Organizations (EO) Select Check,” can help you more easily find out whether an organization is eligible to receive tax-deductible charitable contributions. You can access it at irs.gov/charities-non-profits/exempt-organizations-select-check. Information about organizations eligible to receive deductible contributions is updated monthly.
Many additional rules apply to the charitable donation deduction, so please contact us if you have questions about the deductibility of a gift you’ve made or are considering making. But act soon — you don’t have much time left to make donations that will reduce your 2017 tax bill.
A CPA since 1985, Mike has been providing tax preparation services to individuals and businesses for more than 30 years. Mike is a lifelong resident of Greenwich where he lives with his wife Geri and their three children.