As college graduates struggle under the weight of larger student loan burdens, some employers have begun to offer student loan repayment benefits intended to help employees repay their loans. In May, House Ways and Means Committee member Robert Dold (R-IL) introduced legislation that would, among other changes, amend Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code to explicitly allow employers to make payments on their employees’ student loans on a tax-free basis. That provision excludes from gross income up to $5,250 paid by an employer per year for expenses incurred by or on behalf of an employee for education of the employee (including, but not limited to, tuition, fees, and similar payments, books, supplies, and equipment). Other proposed bills have also been introduced to provide the same benefit. Although the legislation has bipartisan support, it is unclear whether Congress has the appetite for passing legislation that would appear to reduce revenues, or the fortitude to pass anything nonessential in an election year.
For employers interested in providing tax-free student loan repayment benefits, existing law may already allow for such a result. The Internal Revenue Service issued a private letter ruling in 2003 that suggests that such payments may already be excludable under Section 127. In the ruling, a law firm established an educational assistance plan for its non-lawyer employees. The firm’s employees borrowed funds to pay for law school. The firm then provided the employees with additional salary to pay the principal and interest due on the loans during each year of employment, essentially forgiving the debt. The IRS ruled that the first $5,250 of loan payments each year were excludable from the employee’s income under Section 127. Although the private letter ruling applies only to the taxpayer and does not fully describe the terms of the law firm’s program, it offers a strategy for employers to consider when evaluating how to help their employees with student loan payments.