Happy May 29th – a few days past – otherwise known as 529 day. According to the College Board’s “Trends in College Pricing” report, the cost of attending a four-year university rose roughly 3.5% from 2015 to 2016. Costs just keep going up. Have you done enough educational planning for Junior? Take a breath of fresh air and then check out how much college will cost at these schools for the upcoming 2016-2017 school year:
For those of you with younger ones or planning for a family, fortunately, there is still time! Read on as this blog is for you as it focuses on what may be the best college savings program out there: 529 College Savings Plans!
The 529 is a great opportunity for parents, grandparents, or other family members looking to help a child make college a reality someday. Studies show that children with money set aside for college are seven times more likely to actually go there.
529 Plans are state-sponsored investment programs that qualify for special tax treatment under section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. These plans typically involve an agreement between a state government and one or more asset management companies. The contributor (e.g. parent, grandparent, etc.) of the account typically becomes the account owner and the account owner controls withdrawals of assets. The person for whom the plan is set up becomes the beneficiary (e.g. Junior).
Tax-Free Growth. Earnings in a 529 plan grow federal tax-free and will not be taxed when the money is taken out to pay for college. The 529 account remains under the control of the account owner rather than transferring to the child at the age of majority as in the case of an UTMA/UGMA. Any U.S. citizen can participate in a 529 and the funds can be used at any accredited college or university.
Quality investment options. Most 529 programs have a couple dozen quality equity and fixed income investment choices to choose from. Most programs will also allow you to choose an age-based asset allocation model which makes the underlying portfolio become more conservative as the beneficiary approaches college age. Or you create your own portfolio to match your risk tolerance (whether it be more conservative or aggressive) and expected timing of funds. A wealth manager like DWM can help you decide.
Contribution limits. Unlike other tax-advantaged vehicles, 529 have no income limitations on who can contribute, making them available to virtually anyone. Contribution limits to 529 are determined by each 529-sponsoring program independently, but most are quite attractive with limits over $300,000 per beneficiary. To reach that total, a married couple can contribute as much as $140,000 within a single year (the limit is $70,000 for individuals) and, as long as no more is contributed in the following four years, the entire amount qualifies for five years of the gift-tax exclusion. (This type of 5year “front running” can be a great estate planning strategy for grandparents as well.)
Tax benefits. There is no federal tax deductions or credits for 529s, but there typically is at the state level. Contributions to a 529 are fully deductible in South Carolina and up to $10,000 per year by an individual, and up to $20,000 per year by a married couple filing jointly in Illinois assuming you use an in-state program – Bright Start & Bright Directions in Illinois & Future Scholar in SC are all excellent choices. Contributions remain tax-free if used for qualified education expenses.
What’s a Qualified Education Expense?
-Required books, equipment, supplies
-Room and board for ½+ time student
-Special needs expenses of a special needs beneficiary
Non-Qualified Withdrawals. Non-qualified withdrawals will not get the special tax treatment. With a few exceptions, such as when the beneficiary receives a scholarship, the earnings portion of non-qualified withdrawals will incur federal income tax as well as a 10% penalty.
Effect on Financial Aid. A 529 account is counted as an asset of parent if the owner is the parent or dependent student. This is typically more beneficial than other vehicles when calculating the expected family contribution figure.
What happens if the beneficiary decides not to attend college?
The tax laws make it easy on the family if the beneficiary for some reason doesn’t go to college or use the 529 earmarked funds. The account owner can simply change the beneficiary by “rolling over” the account to a “family member” of the original beneficiary with no penalty whatsoever. The definition of “family member” includes a beneficiary’s spouse, children, brothers, sisters, first cousins, nephews and nieces and any spouse of such persons; but typically and most logically it’s one of the original beneficiary’s siblings. Or the account owner can use the funds themselves – it’s always fun to go back to school and learn! Or the least likely option is “cash out and pay”, where the account owner can redeem assets for himself/herself as a non-qualified withdrawal and pay ordinary income taxes and a 10% penalty.
529s vs other college savings plans. Downsides of the others:
- UTMA/UGMA: 1) Control/custodianship within an UTMA/UGMA terminates at age of majority (21 in Illinois & 18 in South Carolina), and 2) kiddie tax considerations and capital gain considerations upon liquidation
- Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (“ESAs”) – maximum investment is only $2,000 per beneficiary per year combined from all sources within ESAs whereas 529s are typically $300K+ per beneficiary.
Conclusion. There is over $230 Billion in 529s now up from less than $10B in 2001. The reason for this growth is people catching on to what really is a great tax-free funding vehicle for an important future educational need. Prepare for that financial burden today by saving early and saving often with a 529 account. Give us a call to help get you started or talk more about educational planning in general.