The Australian Taxation Office have released a new draft ruling on self-education expenses. We revisit the deductibility of self-education expenses and what you can and can’t claim.
If you undertake study that is connected to your work you can normally claim your costs of that study as a tax deduction – assuming your employer has not already picked up your expenses. There is also no limit to the value of the deduction you can claim. While this all sounds great and very encouraging there are still issues to consider before claiming your Harvard graduate degree, accommodation, and flights as a self-education expense.
Clients are often surprised by what cannot be claimed. Self-education expenses are not deductible if you are undertaking the education to obtain a new job or something not connected to how you earn your income now. Take the example of a nurse’s aide who attendees university to qualify as a registered nurse. The university degree and the expenses associated with degree are not deductible as the nursing degree is not sufficiently connected to their current role as a nurse’s aide.
The ATO have recently released a new draft ruling on self-education expenses. While the ruling does not introduce new rules, it does reinforce what the ATO will accept…and what they won’t.
Personal development courses
While not always the case, one of the key challenges in claiming deductions for self-development or personal development courses is that the knowledge or skills gained are often too general. Take the example of a manager who is having difficulty coping with work because of a stressful family situation. She pays for and attends a 4-week stress management course.
In that case, the stress management course is not deductible because the course was not designed to maintain or increase the skills or specific knowledge required in her current position.
When your employment ends part the way through your course
If your employment (or your income earning activity) ends part the way through completing a course, your expenses are only deductible up to the point that you stopped work. Anything from that point forward is not deductible (that is until you obtain a new role and assuming the course remains relevant).
Overseas trips with some work thrown in
Overseas study tours are deductible in limited circumstances. If you are travelling overseas, you need to prove that the dominant purpose of the trip is related to how you earn your income. Factors that help demonstrate this include the time devoted to the advancement of your work related knowledge, the trip not being merely recreational, and that the trip was requested by or supported by your employer. The ATO are strict on this. Take the example of a senior lecturer in history at a University. He takes a trip to China with his wife while on leave over the Christmas break to update his knowledge on his area of academic interest. While his job does not require him to undertake research, he incorporated some of the 600 photos he took and some of the learnings from the tour into the courses he teaches. Despite having a relationship to work, the trip is not deductible as, while relevant in some ways to his field of activity, it is incidental to the overall private and recreational nature of the trip.
Overseas conference with some recreation thrown in
We’ve all had them. Conferences where you spend a few days in sessions and then a day (or more) of touring or golf. When the dominant purpose of the trip is related directly to your work, then the ATO are more accommodating. If the leisure time, for example an afternoon tour organised by the conference, is incidental to the conference itself, then you can claim the full conference expenses.
Where you are extending your stay beyond the conference dates and this isn’t considered incidental, then you apportion the expenses and only claim the portion related to the conference. Let’s say you attend a conference for four days, then spend another four days on holiday. Assuming the conference is directly related to your work, you can claim your expenses related to the conference (assuming they were not picked up by your employer), and half of your airfare (as it’s a 50/50 split on how you spent your time between the conference and recreation).
Not fully deductible? Part of the course might qualify
If a particular course is not entirely deductible, a deduction may still be available for some of the course fees where there are particular subjects or modules in that course that are sufficiently related to your employment or income earning activities. In these cases, the course fees would be apportioned. Take the example of a civil engineer who is completing her MBA. While the MBA itself may not have a sufficient connection to her engineering role to be fully deductible, her expenses related to the project management subject she took as part of the degree could qualify.
Interaction with government assistance
If your course is a Commonwealth supported place, you cannot claim the course fees. But, the deductibility of course fees are not impacted merely because you borrow money to pay for those fees, for example a full-fee paying student using a government FEE-HELP loan to pay for course fees.
A warning on large claims
There is no limit on the amount you can claim as a self-education expense but the ATO is more likely to target large self-education expenses. For anyone who has completed post graduate study you know that these expenses can ratchet up very quickly, particularly when you add in any other expenses such as books or travel. It’s important to ensure that there is a clear connection between your current job or business activity and the self-education expenses before you claim them.
Airfares incurred to participate in self-education, provided you are not living at the location of the self-education activity, are deductible. Airfares are part of the cost of undertaking the self-education activities.