Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529 plans are more than good ways to save for college. They’re also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.
Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.
The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax free as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.
Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.
Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.
In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.
There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.
For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.
Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.
To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.
The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.