Your Guide to Filing Taxes With Student Loans

Student loans aren't taxable income but can have an impact on how you file taxes.
Ryan LaneJan 21, 2021

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If you took out or repaid student loans in the past year, it can affect your taxes. Here’s what you need to know about filing taxes with student loans.

Do you have to file taxes on student loans?

When filing taxes, don’t report your student loans as income. Student loans aren’t taxable because you’ll eventually repay them.

Free money used for school is treated differently. You don’t pay taxes on scholarship or fellowship money used toward tuition, fees and equipment or books required for coursework. If your entire scholarship is nontaxable, you don’t have to report it on your return.

But any portion of those funds used for room and board, research, travel or optional equipment is taxable. You’ll report it as part of your gross income.

If you benefitted from an employer student loan repayment program, any money you received after March 27, 2020 is not considered taxable income.

How to deduct student loan interest

If you repaid student loans last year, you may be eligible for the student loan interest deduction. If your interest payment was over $600, your student loan servicer will automatically send you Form 1098-E, a student loan interest statement.

You can still deduct interest if you paid less than $600, which may be the case since most federal student loan payments have been paused interest-free since March 13, 2020. Contact your servicer to receive the form or access your online account to find the exact amount.

Filing jointly and separately with student loans

With student loans, your tax filing status mainly affects your income-driven repayment plan, if you have one. Income-driven repayment plans use the adjusted gross income listed on your taxes to determine your monthly payments.

If you file as single or head of household, your payments will be based on your income alone. If you’re married, filing jointly or filing separately can increase or decrease your student loan payments.

All income-driven repayment plans besides Revised Pay as You Earn, or REPAYE, will consider only your income to calculate payments. REPAYE includes your spouse’s income whether you file jointly or not.

For example, let’s say you earned $35,000 last year. Under the Income-Based Repayment plan, which can cap payments to 10% of your discretionary income, your monthly payment would be $80 based on a family size of two if you filed separately.

You will pay more than if you filed separately because payments will be based on two incomes instead of one.

Consider the previous example in which you earned $35,000. If your spouse made $60,000 and you filed jointly, your payment would increase from $80 to $580 based on your combined income of $95,000.

This changes the income-driven repayment calculation, as the Department of Education will account for your spouse’s federal student loan debt when calculating your payment. Its math doesn't factor in private student loan debt, though.

In our example, let’s say you and your spouse each owe $30,000 in federal student loans. Since you have equal levels of debt, the Department of Education would split that $580 payment in half. Now, you would pay $290 each month. If you owed $50,000 instead, your payment would increase to $362.50 to reflect the larger percentage of the combined debt you have.

Choosing a filing status is easy if you’re enrolled in REPAYE, which is open to any borrower with eligible federal student loans. It treats filing jointly and separately the same. If you qualify for a different income-driven repayment plan, you’ll want to look at your financial situation to decide.

Filing separately could save you money in student loan payments each month, but it may not make up for a smaller tax refund. Married couples who file jointly are eligible for a standard deduction of $24,400, compared with $12,200 for those who file separately. Filing separately also disqualifies you for certain tax breaks, including the student loan interest deduction and education credits.

How to qualify for education tax breaks

If you paid for education expenses in the past year, you might qualify for an education tax credit. You can choose from either the American opportunity credit or the lifetime learning credit. You also may be eligible for the tuition and fees deduction, though you can't claim this deduction and an education credit.

You can qualify for one of these breaks even if you paid for qualifying costs, like tuition and books, with a student loan. Your school will send you Form 1098-T, a tuition statement, to help you track qualified expense payments.

Should you refinance your student loans?

How student loan forgiveness affects your taxes

If your federal student loans are forgiven under an income-driven repayment plan, the forgiven amount is considered income and could lead to a so-called "student loan forgiveness tax bomb."

For example, let’s say you're single with no dependents and earned $50,000 last year. Claiming the standard deduction, you would owe $4,314 in taxes. Add $50,000 in forgiven student loans to that income and your tax burden increases to $15,103.

Not all forgiven student loans are considered taxable income. Forgiven loan amounts for performing qualifying employment, such as through the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Teacher Loan Forgiveness programs, are tax exempt. You also don't pay taxes on student loans discharged due to death, total and permanent disability and school closure or fraud.

If you have a forgiven student loan to document when filing taxes, you should receive a cancellation of debt form, known as Form 1099-C.

When to talk to a tax professional

As with most tax-related topics, if your student loan situation seems complex, it’s time to discuss your options with a professional. They can help you determine which combination of filing status, tax deductions and credits will save you the most money now and in the future.

You also may want to talk to a tax professional if you can’t afford your tax bill after student loan forgiveness. They may be able to help you reduce or avoid those charges, especially if it means your total liabilities are now more than your total assets.

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