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The ABCs of business education deductions

Now that the kids are back in school, you may have the itch to return to the classroom yourself, perhaps to brush up on certain skills in your field or expand your horizons. Can you deduct the cost of business education? It depends.

Generally, you can deduct business expenses only if one of these two requirements is met:

  1. The education is required by your employer or is mandated by law.
  2. The education maintains or improves the skills needed in your present work.

A couple caveats

That sounds simple enough, but there are also a couple things that can disqualify you for the deduction. First, if the education is required to meet the minimum educational requirements of your trade or business, then you are expected to pay that cost as a normal part of doing business — and without a tax break. Second, if the education qualifies you for an entirely new trade or business, then you also don't get to use the deduction.

It's the second caveat that often trips up taxpayers. For instance, if a nurse starts taking courses that will result in a degree as a physician, the courts have said that the education expenses can't be deducted because it qualifies the nurse for a new line of work.

If you qualify for the deductions

Assuming you do qualify, you may deduct expenses like tuition, books, laboratory fees, equipment and transportation between work and school. Typically, the cost of the trip is deductible if you go straight to class after work. You can't write off travel costs if you stop at home for a snack or to change into more comfortable clothes, however.

When you pay business education costs out your own pocket, the expenses are deductible as miscellaneous expenses, subject to a floor of 2 percent of adjusted gross income (AGI). However, if your company reimburses you, payments are generally deductible in full by the company and tax-free to you. Alternatively, an employer may establish an educational assistance plan (EAP) that provides up to $5,250 in annual tax-free benefits to each participant.

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