College is often a parent’s biggest expense after retirement, yet people are hesitant to save because they don’t know the 529 Plan rules. A 529 College Savings Plan is a terrific wealth building investment for families and has more benefits and flexibility than people realize. While I think investors need to prioritize their own retirement and wealth management, that time horizon is much longer than for college. Retirement accumulation takes 40 years and then will be spent over 20-30 years. College saving is 18 years or less and then 4-6 years of spending.
College costs are growing faster than CPI and it already costs $300,000 for four years at most private universities. If your student changes majors, or decides to stay for a graduate degree, their cost could reach $500,000. 44.7 million American have student loan debt, totaling over $1.6 trillion. Students loans are a looming crisis; 11.1% are presently delinquent or in default and repayment is crushing a lot of Millennials. Many of us had student loans when we were younger, but do not fully appreciate how the magnitude of these loans have grown since we were in college.
Yes, there are a few drawbacks to College Savings Plans, and that’s why I want you to understand the 529 Plan rules. The value is so significant that when people get hung up on the rules, I think they risk missing out on substantial tax benefits and investment opportunities. After all, there are rules for 401(k) accounts and Roth IRAs, but most people are happy to navigate those rules to reap the rewards.
Tax Rules of 529 Plans
- The primary benefit of a 529 Plan is tax-free withdrawals for qualified higher educational expenses, such as tuition, room and board, and books. You can now also use a 529 Plan towards private K-12 tuition, up to $10,000 a year. You can also use $10,000 towards student loan repayment.
- There is no Federal tax deduction for 529 Plan contributions, however, many states do offer a state income tax deduction. In some states, you have to contribute to that state’s plan to get a deduction. In other states, you can contribute to any plan. For Texas, there is no state income tax, so there is no deduction for a 529 plan contribution.
- Contribution limits: most plans have very high limits, often $350,000 or higher. However, most donors want to stay under the annual gift tax exclusion of $15,000 per person. The IRS will let you contribute 5 years at once, or $75,000 per beneficiary. If you and your spouse are funding a 529, you can each contribute $75,000 or $150,000 total under the gift tax exclusion. If you want to contribute more than that, you can. You just have to file an annual gift tax return. You will not owe any taxes until your gifts exceed your unified lifetime exemption of $11.58 million (2020). (Note: certain candidates propose to lower the estate tax threshold to $3.5 million. If that happens, you may want to exceed the gift limits now to reduce a future estate tax liability.)
- All 529 Plans offer tax-deferred growth, so you pay no taxes on interest or capital gains annually. Now the part that stops everyone in their tracks: non-qualified withdrawals are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty.
Tax/Penalty Only on Earnings
Let’s dissect that a bit more, because it’s not as bad as you might think. The income tax and penalty apply ONLY to the earnings portion, not the whole withdrawal. For example, if you contributed $50,000 to a 529 and it grew to $70,000, you would have $20,000 in earnings. Withdraw the whole $70,000 for a non-qualified reason and you would pay a $2,000 penalty and the $20,000 earnings would be treated as ordinary income. At the 24% tax bracket, you’d pay $4,800 in income taxes.
Withdrawals are pro-rata, meaning earnings are proportional for each distribution. A non-qualified withdrawal from a 529 plan is not subject to the 3.8% net investment tax (the Medicare surtax), if you earn over $200,000 single or $250,000 married.
Ways Around the Penalty and Tax
Everyone is frozen by the thought they might have to pay a penalty, but there are exceptions and ways to avoid it. Here are more 529 Plan rules to know:
- If the beneficiary dies or becomes disabled, the 10% penalty is waived. If they receive a scholarship, the penalty is waived. Earnings are still taxable, but no penalty.
- You can change the beneficiary to another child, grandchild, other relative, or even yourself. If they can use the money for higher education, you’re back to tax-free withdrawals. If you have two or more children or grandchildren, I think it’s pretty likely that someone in your family is going to be able to use the money.
- Kid not going to college? You can do nothing and wait. Just because they turned 18, you don’t have to withdraw the money. It never becomes their money and you never lose control of the funds. You can keep it deferred for as long as you like. Maybe they later go to trade school or an apprenticeship program. That’s a qualified 529 expense. Or maybe they have kids of their own down the road. Now you have a college account for your grandkids.
- You can give the money to your kid if you want. The taxes are payable to the distributee. Have the 529 distribute the money to your kids and they will owe any tax and penalty on the gains. (And they may be in a lower tax bracket than you. So, this is good tax planning, not being selfish on your part.)
- For long-term care. Let’s say your kids don’t use the money and you don’t have grandchildren and this account sits there for decades just growing tax-deferred. If you become disabled you can change the beneficiary to yourself and receive the disability waiver on the penalty.
More Benefits of a 529 Plan
- A 529 remains the property of you, the owner. If you instead funded and UGMA or UTMA, that becomes the property of the beneficiary at the age of majority (18 or 21; 21 in Texas). UGMA equals You Give Money Away. They can spend it on anything they want, including whatever terrible decisions you can imagine. No one is thinking this is possible when someone is three, but you give up all your control with an UGMA.
- Creditor Protection. Are you a business owner, doctor, or professional worried about getting sued? 529 Plans are creditor protected.
- Financial Aid. A 529 plan is a parental asset, subject to a 5.6% expected family contribution from the FAFSA financial aid process. Put that asset in the child’s name and the expected contribution is 20% a year. A 529 plan in the grandparent’s name is not reportable on the FAFSA.
- A 529 Plan will not be part of your taxable estate. You can and should name a successor trustee/owner of the funds for after you pass away. As such, 529 plan could be an important way to create a legacy for your family.
It’s Your Family’s Future
If you like the idea of Tax-Free Growth, a 529 Plan could benefit your family. When people get too worried about the 10% penalty and the other 529 Plan rules, they are often paralyzed to take action. Investors contribute to 401(k)’s and Roth IRAs that have a 10% penalty, but they seem to think that with a 529 it’s going to be worse. To get the best tax benefit from a 529, you want to start as early as possible. Opening a 529 plan for a 17 year old going to college in the Fall does not leave you much time for tax-free growth.
Parents and Grandparents want their children have the same opportunities they had. Many would like for their kids to go to the same or better university than they attended. Let’s start with estimating what four years would cost and what it would take to fund that expense monthly starting now.
Don’t have kids yet? Open a 529 Plan in your own name. When your child is born, you can change the beneficiary to their name. We can fund a 529 with a lump sum, or you can set up small monthly contributions. Expenses on 529 plans have been declining in recent years and many offer low-cost index based investment options. You have daily liquidity, however, most plans restrict you to two trades a year to discourage market timing. Almost all plans offer age-based funds, which adjust to become more conservative as a beneficiary approaches college age.
I hope to make it easy to understand the 529 Plan rules, so you can get started. Please don’t hesitate to email me with your questions, I’m here to help.