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What Your Need to Know about 529 College Savings Plans

You might think that tax-deferred savings is the main benefit, along with tax-free withdrawals for qualifying higher education expenses. However, there are also state tax incentives, such as tax deductions, credits, grants, or exemption from financial aid consideration from in-state schools in certain states .

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)” says there are many more advantages to the college savings programs than simple tax benefits.

1) Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify. You can make qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan for registered apprenticeship programs. These programs cover a wide range of areas with an average annual salary for those that complete their apprenticeship of $70,000.

2) International Schools Usually Qualify. More than 400 schools outside of the US are considered to be qualified higher education institutions. You can, therefore, make tax-free withdrawals from a 529 plan for qualifying expenses at those colleges.

3) Gap Year and College Credit Classes for High School. Some gap year programs have partnered with higher education institutions to qualify for funding from 529 accounts. This includes some international and domestic gap year, outdoor education, study-abroad, wilderness survival, sustainable living trades and art programs. Primary school students over 14 can also use 529 funds for college credit classes, where available.

4) Get Your Money Back if Not Going to College. If your beneficiary meets certain criteria, it’s possible to avoid a 10% penalty and changing the plan from tax-free to tax-deferred. For this to happen, the beneficiary must:

  • Receive a tax-free scholarship or grant
  • Attend a US military academy
  • Die or become disabled; or
  • Get assistance through a qualifying employer-assisted college savings program.

Note that 529 plans are technically revocable. Therefore, you can rescind the gift and pull the assets back into the estate of the account owner. However, there are tax consequences, including tax on earnings plus a 10% penalty tax.

5) Private K–12 Tuition Is Qualified. 529 withdrawals can be used for up to $10,000 of tuition expenses at private K–12 schools. However, other expenses, such as computers, supplies, travel and other costs are not qualified.

6) Pay Off Your Student Loans. If you graduate with some money leftover in a 529 account, it can be used for up to $10,000 in certain student loan repayments.

7) Estate Planning. Contributions to a 529 plan are completed gifts to the beneficiary. These can be “superfunded” for up to $75,000 per beneficiary in a single year, effectively using five years’ worth of annual gift tax exemption up front. For retirees with significant RMDs (required minimum distributions) from qualified accounts, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, the 529 plan offers high contribution limits across multiple beneficiaries, while retaining control of the assets during the lifetime of the account owner. Assets also pass by contract upon death, avoiding probate and estate tax.

Reference: Forbes (July 15, 2021) “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)”

What are the 411 on 529 College Savings Plans?

There are two basic types of 529 plans, says Texas News Today’s recent article entitled “What you need to know about the “529” Education Savings Account.” The more common type is the 529 College Savings Plan. This allows parents, grandparents and others to invest money to cover eligible education for beneficiaries. The less common type is the 529 prepaid tuition program, in which tuition is paid at a set price.

Contributions to the 529 Plan aren’t tax deductible at the federal level. However, many states offer state income tax deductions or credits. Your money grows tax-free and withdrawals to pay tuition and other eligible expenses are free of federal taxes and, in many instances, state income taxes.

529 plans can be used to pay for various college fees like tuition, room, food, books, and technology. You can pay up to $10,000 a year for K-12 tuition. You can also transfer the money in your account to other recipients. There are more pluses than minuses. However, you should note that you may face tax impacts and penalties for withdrawals that aren’t considered eligible costs. Your child’s college needs financial assistance may also be reduced, and you cannot purchase individual stocks within the 529 plan. However, you can select a number of investment options. Even so, you have fewer options than if you were designing your own portfolio.

You can transfer some or all of the existing funds in your account to another investment option twice in a calendar year or after changing beneficiaries. You can also select a different investment option whenever you join the plan. You can switch to another state’s plan once every 12 months. However, there are a few states that exclude such shifts from their plans.

Each state has set a total contribution limit of $235,000 to $542,000 per beneficiary. When an account hits the limit, you will not be able to make any more donations. However, revenue will continue to accumulate. There’s no annual donation limit, but donations are considered gifts for federal tax purposes. Therefore, this year, you could donate $15,000 per donor and per recipient with no federal gift tax. You can also make a $75,000 tax-exempt 529 plan donation and evenly distribute it to your tax return for the next five years, which is an option that some grandparents use as a tool for real estate planning.

The benefits of saving for college through the 529 plan are likely to outweigh the potential impact on financial assistance. Assets in an account owned by either a student or their parents are considered parental assets for federal financial assistance purposes, and typically only 5.64% of accounts are considered annually in the FAFSA (Federal Student Assistance Free Application) calculation. This is an advantage over being counted as a student asset because distribution under this ownership structure doesn’t disqualify the university for financial assistance. The assets of the grandparents’ account don’t impact the student’s FAFSA, but the distribution counts as the student’s income and affects aid.

Reference: Texas News Today (June 8, 2021) “What you need to know about the “529” Education Savings Account”

grandchild's college tuition

How Can I Help with My Grandchild’s College Tuition?

To assist with college tuition for younger children or grandchildren, you may want to defer the receipt of funds, until the child or grandchild needs to pay for tuition down the road. You can make a gift into a custody account or into a trust that qualifies as a current gift under the Uniform Gifts to Minor’s Act, or you can fund a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs: prepaid plans and savings plans. The advantage of a 529 plan over a Unified Gift to Minors Act plan is that the earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed, until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

Prepaid Programs: Some colleges let you buy tuition credits or certificates at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild won’t be starting college for several years. This allows you to lock in today’s rates for her enrollment some years later. This move can resultant in substantial savings, since tuition continues to rise at most institutions.

Savings Programs: Similar to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, tuition amounts covered by a savings plan are dependent on the investment performance of the money you have in the plan. If it grows, more cost can be covered. But if it declines, less will be covered. Therefore, it is good to be conservative, if the need for distributions is nearing soon.

Qualified Higher Education Expenses: Tuition (including up to $10,000 in tuition for an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school), fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, as well as reasonable room and board are qualified expenses, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, if they represent earnings on the account. A 10% penalty tax is also imposed.

Beneficiary: The beneficiary of the program is specified when you start the funding. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the program to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary without income tax liability.

Eligible Schools: Any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education will be eligible schools for these programs.

The contributions made to the qualified tuition program are treated as gifts to the student. They qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If your contributions in a year exceed the exclusion amount, you can elect to take the contributions into account over a five-year period starting with the year of the contributions.

Note that you may not be able to make the distributions from the program when a very young (or unborn) beneficiary goes to college, so name an alternative custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, to make distributions for you.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

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