The other type of 529 is the savings plan. It’s similar to an investment account, but the funds accumulate tax deferred. Withdrawals from state-sponsored 529 plans are free of federal income tax as long as they are used for qualified college expenses. Many states also exempt withdrawals from state income tax for qualified higher education expenses. Unlike the case with prepaid tuition plans, contributions can be used for all qualified higher-education expenses (tuition, fees, books, equipment and supplies, room and board), and the funds usually can be used at all accredited post-secondary schools in the United States. The risk with these plans is that investments may lose money or may not perform well enough to cover college costs as anticipated.
In most cases, 529 savings plans place investment dollars in a mix of funds based on the age of the beneficiary, with account allocations becoming more conservative as the time for college draws closer. But recently, more states have contracted professional money managers — many well-known investment firms — to actively manage and market their plans, so a growing number of investors can customize their asset allocations. Some states enable account owners to qualify for a deduction on their state tax returns or receive a small match on the money invested. Earnings from 529 plans are not taxed when used to pay for eligible college expenses. And there are even consumer-friendly reward programs that allow people who purchase certain products and services to receive rebate dollars that go into state-sponsored college savings accounts.
Funds contributed to a 529 plan are considered to be gifts to the beneficiary, so anyone — even non-relatives — can contribute up to $15,000 per year in 2019 per beneficiary without incurring gift tax consequences. Contributions can be made in one lump sum or in monthly installments. And assets contributed to a 529 plan are not considered part of the account owner’s estate, therefore avoiding estate taxes upon the owner’s death.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 allows distributions from 529 plans to be used to pay up to a total of $10,000 of tuition per beneficiary (regardless of the number of contributing plans) each year at an elementary or secondary (k-12) public, private or religious school of the beneficiary’s choosing.
Major benefits of 529 Plans
These savings plans generally allow people of any income level to contribute, and there are no age limits for the student. The account owner can maintain control of the account until funds are withdrawn — and, if desired, can even change the beneficiary as long as he or she is within the immediate family of the original beneficiary. A 529 plan is also extremely simple when it comes to tax reporting — the sponsoring state, not you, is responsible for all income tax record keeping. At the end of the year when the withdrawal is made for college, you will receive Form 1099 from the state, and there is only one figure to enter on it: the amount of income to report on the student’s tax return.
Benefits for grandparents
The 529 plan could be a great way for grandparents to shelter inheritance money from estate taxes and contribute substantial amounts to a student’s college fund. At the same time, they also control the assets and can retain the power to control withdrawals from the account. By accelerating use of the annual gift tax exclusion, a grandparent — as well as anyone, for that matter — could elect to use five years’ worth of annual exclusions by making a single contribution of as much as $75,000 per beneficiary in 2019 (or a couple could contribute $150,000 in 2019), as long as no other contributions are made for that beneficiary for five years. If the account owner dies, the 529 plan balance is not considered part of his or her estate for tax purposes. (If the donor makes the five-year election and dies during the five-year calendar period, part of the contribution could revert back to the donor’s estate.)
As with other investments, there are generally fees and expenses associated with participation in a Section 529 savings plan. In addition, there are no guarantees regarding the performance of the underlying investments in 529 plans. The tax implications of a 529 savings plan should be discussed with your legal and/or tax advisors because they can vary significantly from state to state. Also note that most states offer their own 529 plans, which may provide advantages and benefits exclusively for their residents and taxpayers. These other state benefits may include financial aid, scholarship funds, and protection from creditors.
Before investing in a 529 savings plan, please consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses carefully. The official disclosure statements and applicable prospectuses — which contain this and other information about the investment options, underlying investments, and investment company — can be obtained by contacting your financial professional. You should read these materials carefully before investing.
By comparing different plans, you can determine which might be available for your situation. You may find that 529 programs make saving for college easier than before.