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It's as American as apple pie! No member of Congress gets re-elected after voting against parents, kids and education. That's why the education goodies flavoring our tax code are so sweet. Here are four of the best:

1. Coverdell Accounts

These used to be called Education IRAs or Education Savings Accounts. Fund a Coverdell Account with as much as $2,000 per child under age 18 in 2011, and all earnings used for qualified educational expenses (including tuition, fees, room and board) can come out tax-free. Sorry, you don't get a current deduction. But these are the only tax-favored accounts that can be used for elementary and secondary school expenses as well as for college.

If you invest $2,000 a year earning 7% in a Coverdell Education Account for 18 years, you'll have $36,758 in tax-free income and a total account valued at $72,758.

Afraid your oldest won't go to college? Or what if he winds up winning a full scholarship? You can roll over any unused Coverdell money to other family members, provided they are under age 30, without penalty. All funds must be distributed before the last beneficiary hits age 30.

Congress included an income limit (the phaseout is $95,000 to $110,000 for single filers and $190,000 to $220,000 for joint returns), but it's an empty provision. Anybody with earned income can open a Coverdell Account. You don't even have to be related to the beneficiary. If your income is too high to qualify, gift the money to a grandparent or friend to contribute. Even a child beneficiary can contribute.

The downside:

Coverdell Accounts are considered an asset belonging to the student for college financial aid purposes. Aid eligibility is reduced by 35% of the value of the account.

On the other hand, you have the value of the account. Or maybe you used it up on elementary and secondary school expenses. Either way, you're still ahead of the game.

2. Section 529 plans

These qualified state tuition programs, established by a state or state agency, allow you to:

  • Purchase tuition credits or certificates for the payment of education expenses, or
  • Make contributions into an account to pay qualified education expenses such as tuition, books, fees, room and board.

Unlike funds in Coverdell Accounts, these dollars can be used only for undergraduate and graduate college expenses. As with the Coverdell, you don't get a federal tax deduction.

All distributions come out tax-free. There's no income limit for contributions. For gift tax purposes, a single donor can claim five years of annual gift tax exclusions per recipient in a single year, which means contributing as much as $65,000 ($13,000 x 5). Some states offer state tax breaks, either a deduction or a credit, for contributions. In many cases, you still can get both state and federal benefits even if you live in one state but go to school in another. For financial aid purposes, 529 accounts are considered assets of the parents, assessed up to 5.6%. They can be transferred to other members of your family, including cousins, without penalty.

Jeff Schnepper

Jeff Schnepper

Want to get creative? Name yourself as beneficiary of a Section 529 account and save money for a two- to three-year sabbatical -- tax-free as long as it involves education at an eligible institution. Even some schools abroad qualify. Not only can you use the money for books and tuition, but you can even pay for your apartment up to the amount specified in the school's guidelines.

The downsides: Both with Section 529 accounts and Coverdell Accounts, distributions not used for qualified educational purposes are taxed at your highest marginal rate and may be subject to a 10% penalty. The penalty is on the full distribution. The tax is only on the income. The real risk is if your investment decreases in value. So, the shorter the time before you actually need the money, the more liquid and conservative your Section 529 investments should be.

Check out Savingforcollege.com and the College Savings Plans Network for details on specific plans.

3. Credits

Credits are better than a deduction. A $100 credit reduces your tax by $100. A $100 deduction reduces your tax by only your marginal rate. So, if you're in the 28% bracket, it saves you only $28.

American Opportunity Tax Credit: Extended last December through 2012, this is a credit of 100% of the first $2,000 in tuition and related education expenses (including course materials and books) and 25% of the next $2,000, for a maximum total of $2,500. Forty percent of this credit is refundable. So you can get a $1,000 check from the IRS even if you have no tax liability.

This tax credit is phased out as your adjusted gross income rises from $80,000 to $90,000 for single filers and $160,000 to $180,000 for joint returns. It's good for all four years of undergraduate college.

This is a per-child credit. Room and board do not qualify as expenses.

Lifetime Learning Credit: This credit is 20% of up to $10,000 in qualified undergraduate or graduate expenses. Since the maximum benefit here is $2,000, the American Opportunity Credit at $2,500 should always be better for undergraduate expenses.

The income phaseout here is $50,000 to $60,000 for single filers and $100,000 to $120,000 on a joint return.

This is a per-family credit. Room and board do not qualify as expenses.

4. Tax-free employee benefit

Better than a deduction. Even better than a credit. Nothing beats having your employer pay for your tuition as a tax-free employee benefit.

The employer sets up an educational assistance plan, and you can receive as much as $5,250 in tax-free cash to pay for graduate or undergraduate tuition, fees, books and supplies. The courses taken don't even have to relate to your business. Courses in sports, games and hobbies are specifically excluded, however, unless they relate directly to your business or are required as part of a degree program.

Getting creative: Unfortunately, the exclusion applies only to the employee, not to the rest of the family. That doesn't help fund the kids' education. But if you're self-employed, a funding loophole created by Congress can help you. Hire your kids to work for you and pay them a reasonable wage. At almost any age, they can do filing and mailing. I had my kids welcome my clients and serve coffee to them.

For 2011, the first $5,800 you pay them is taxed at zero (assuming no other income). What's paid is deductible by you for both income tax and Social Security purposes.

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There's no federal Social Security or Medicare tax on an unincorporated parent hiring a child under age 18 and no federal unemployment tax until the child hits 21.

Your family enjoys the tax savings between your marginal rates and those of the kids. Say you have three kids under 18 who earn $5,800 each. If you're in the 28% bracket with a 15.3% Social Security hit, that creates an additional $7,534 (.28 + .153 = 43.3%. $5,800 x 3 x .433 = $7,534) in family wealth, each qualifying year.

What do the kids do with their tax-free cash? Put it in a Section 529 account, of course!

Jeff Schnepper is the author of the best-selling book "How to Pay Zero Taxes," which is in its 30th edition. He is a former professor of taxation, accounting and finance. Schnepper now has a full-time tax planning and legal practice in Cherry Hill, N.J. Click here to find Schnepper's most recent articles.