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Dear Liz: I’m having trouble finding information about how to structure my finances to get the maximum financial aid for my kids when they enter college. For example, will contributing to an IRA instead of a taxable investment account matter? Should I focus on paying off my mortgage or should I buy a bigger house and acquire debt in the process if I want my kids to qualify for more aid? There’s plenty of advice out there about how to minimize taxes — for example, by contributing to 401(k)s or selling losing stocks at year-end. But I’m interested in legally and ethically shielding my assets from the family contribution calculations used by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Any idea how I can learn more about the inner workings of the FASFA formula?
Answer: Before you rearrange your finances, you need to understand that most financial aid these days consists of loans, which have to be repaid, rather than scholarships and grants that don’t. Wanting your kids to qualify for more aid could just lead them to qualify for more debt.
Also, the FAFSA formula weighs income more heavily than assets. If you have a six-figure income and only one child in college at a time, you shouldn’t expect much need-based financial aid, regardless of what you do with your assets.
That said, there are some sensible ways to shield assets from the formula, and often they’re things you should be doing anyway: maxing out your retirement contributions, for example, and using any non-retirement savings to pay down credit cards, car loans and other consumer debt.
Using non-retirement savings to pay down mortgage debt helps with the federal formula, but may not help much with private schools that include home equity in their calculations. Either way, taking on a bigger mortgage with college looming is rarely a good idea.
You can get some idea of how much the federal formula expects you to pay for your children’s educations by using the “estimated family contribution” calculator at FinAid.org. Another great source of information is the book “Filing the FAFSA: The Edvisors Guide to Completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid” by Mark Kantrowitz and David Levy.
Dear Liz: We have a son who is a high school junior and who is planning on going to college. We met with a college financial planner who suggest we put money in a whole life insurance policy as a way to help get more financial aid. Is that a good idea?
Answer: Your “college financial planner” is actually an insurance salesperson who hopes to make a big commission by talking you into an expensive policy you probably don’t need.
The salesperson is correct that buying a cash-value life insurance policy is one way to hide assets from college financial planning formulas. Some would question the ethics of trying to look poorer to get more aid, but the bottom line is that for most families, there are better ways to get an affordable education.
First, you should understand that assets owned by parents get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. Some assets, such as retirement accounts and home equity, aren’t counted at all by the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA. Parents also get to exempt a certain amount of assets based on their age. The closer the parents are to retirement, the greater the amount of non-retirement assets they’re able to shield.
Consider using the “expected family contribution calculator” at FinAid.org and the net cost calculators posted on the Web sites of the colleges your son is considering. Do the calculations with and without the money you’re trying to hide to see what difference the money really makes.
Most families don’t have enough “countable” assets to worry about their effect on financial aid formulas, said college aid expert Lynn O’Shaughnessy, author of “The College Solution.” Those that do have substantial assets have several options to reduce their potential impact, including spending down any custodial accounts, paying off debt and maxing out retirement plan contributions in the years before applying for college.
Another thing to consider is that most financial aid these days comes as loans that need to be repaid, rather than as scholarships or grants that don’t. So boosting your financial aid eligibility could just mean getting into more debt.
Meanwhile, it’s generally not a good idea to buy life insurance if you don’t need life insurance. The policy could wind up costing you a lot more than you’d save on financial aid.
If you’re still considering this policy, run the scheme past a fee-only financial planner—one who doesn’t stand to benefit financially from the investment—for an objective second opinion.
Dear Liz: I have rental property, own my home outright, am contributing to a 401(k) and have a pension, so finances are not a big issue. I do have an adult son in law school and would like to know the most fiscally prudent way to pay for it. Are there limits on gifts, and can the money be tax deductible since it is an investment to increase his future earnings?
Answer: Interest on student loans is generally tax deductible for the person who takes out the loan if his or her income is below certain limits (the deduction begins to phase out at $50,000 adjusted gross income for single filers and $100,000 for joint filers), said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America.
Education tax credits also can help offset college costs. The American Opportunity Credit is limited to the first four years of college, but law school expenses could qualify for the Lifetime Learning Credit, Luscombe said. The credit starts to phase out at $53,000 of adjusted gross income for single filers and $107,000 for joint filers, he said.
If you don’t qualify for other credits and your son is under age 24, you may be able to deduct up to $4,000 in qualified education expenses if your income is below certain limits (modified adjusted gross income of $160,000 if married filing jointly or $80,000 if single), Luscombe said. You can find out the details in IRS Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education.
Another potential tax benefit has to do with the gift tax. You can avoid the hassle of filing a gift tax return, or using up any portion of your gift tax exclusion, if you pay tuition or medical bills for someone else. You have to pay the provider directly — you can’t cut a check to the person receiving the services.
Normally, you’d have to file a gift tax return if you gave any recipient more than the gift tax exclusion limit, which is $14,000 in 2013. You wouldn’t be subject to an actual gift tax, however, until the sum of the contributions over that $14,000 limit exceeded your lifetime gift exemption. The gift exemption is currently $5.25 million, so the gift tax is an issue that few people face.
If you are that rich and generous, then you’ll probably want to discuss your situation with a qualified estate planning attorney to find the best ways to give.
Dear Liz: I am almost finished with my associate degree at my local community college and will be starting my undergraduate degree in January. I have been lucky enough to accrue no college debt so far but know I will when I start my bachelor’s degree. I am considering taking out a home equity loan to cover this cost, borrowing around $10,000. I got a great deal on my house and it continues to grow in value even with this economy. Your thoughts on this?
Answer: Home equity loans are actually more expensive than most federal student loans. Home equity loan rates for people with good credit range from 7% to 9% in many areas, while the current rate for direct, unsubsidized federal student loans is 5.41%. Furthermore, home equity loans aren’t as flexible and have fewer consumer protections than federal student loans.
You may initially get a lower rate on a home equity line of credit, but these variable-rate loans easily could get more expensive as interest rates rise.
Not only do federal student loans offer fixed rates, but they provide many affordable repayment options plus deferrals or forbearance if you should lose your job or run into other economic setbacks. You don’t have to demonstrate financial need to get federal student loans, although people with such needs can get subsidized loans with a lower interest rate. Your college’s financial aid office can help you apply.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have three children, two in elementary school and one in middle school. Through saving and investing, we have amassed enough money to pay for each of them to go to a four-year college. In addition, we have invested 15% of our income every year toward retirement, have six months’ worth of emergency funds and have no debt aside from our mortgage and one car loan that will be paid off in a year. Considering that we have all the money we will need for college, should we move this money out of an investment fund and into something very low risk or continue to invest it, since we still have five years to go until our oldest goes to college and we can potentially make more money off of it?
Answer: Any time you’re within five years of a goal, you’d be smart to start taking money off the table — in other words, investing it more conservatively so you don’t risk a market downturn wiping you out just when you need the cash. The same is true when you have all the money you need for a goal. Why continue to shoulder risk if it’s not necessary?
You should question, though, whether you actually do have all the money your kids will need for college. College expenses can vary widely, from an average estimated student budget of $22,261 for an in-state, four-year public college to $43,289 for a private four-year institution, according to the College Board. Elite schools can cost even more, with a sticker price of $60,000 a year or more.
Another factor to consider is that it may take your children more than four years to complete their educations, particularly if they attend public schools where cutbacks have made it harder for students to get required courses in less than five years, and sometimes six.
So while you might want to start moving the oldest child’s college money into safer territory and dial back on the risks you’re taking with the younger children’s funds, you probably don’t want to exit the stock market entirely. A 50-50 mix of stocks and short-term bonds or cash could allow the younger children’s money some growth while offering a cushion against stock market swings.
A session with a fee-only financial planner could give you personalized advice for how to deploy this money.
Dear Liz: My husband and I have been putting 5% and 6%, respectively, into our 401(k) accounts to get our full company matches. We’re also maxing out our Roth IRAs.
The CPA who does our taxes recommended that we put more money into our 401(k)s even if that would mean putting less into our Roth IRAs. We’re also expecting our first child, and our CPA said he doesn’t like 529 plans.
What’s your opinion on us increasing our 401(k)s by the amount we’d intended to put into a 529, while still maxing out our Roths, and then using our Roth contributions (not earnings) to pay for our child’s college (assuming he goes on to higher education)?
Our CPA liked that idea, but I can’t find anything online that says anyone else is doing things this way. I can’t help but wonder if there’s a catch.
Answer: Other people are indeed doing this, and there’s a big catch: You’d be using money for college that may do you a lot more good in retirement.
Contributions to Roth IRAs are, as you know, not tax deductible, but you can withdraw your contributions at any time without paying taxes or penalties. In retirement, your gains can be withdrawn tax free. Having money in tax-free as well as taxable and tax-deferred accounts gives you greater ability to control your tax bill in retirement.
Also, unlike other retirement accounts, you’re not required to start distributions after age 70 1/2. If you don’t need the money, you can continue to let it grow tax free and leave the whole thing to your heirs, if you want.
That’s a lot of flexibility to give up, and sucking out your contributions early will stunt how much more the accounts can grow.
You’d also miss out on the chance to let future returns help increase your college fund.
Let’s say you contribute $11,000 a year to your Roths ($5,500 each, the current limit). If you withdraw all your contributions after 18 years, you’d have $198,000 (any investment gains would stay in the account to avoid early-withdrawal fees).
Impressive, yes, but if you’d invested that money instead in a 529 and got 6% average annual returns, you could have $339,000. At 8%, the total is $411,000. That may be far more than you need — or it may not be, if you have more than one child or want to help with graduate school. With elite colleges costing $60,000 a year now and likely much more in the future, you may want all the growth you can get.
You didn’t say why your CPA doesn’t like 529s, but they’re a pretty good way for most families to save for college. Withdrawals are tax free when used for higher education and there is a huge array of plans to choose from, since every state except Wyoming offers at least one of these programs and most have multiple investment options.
Clearly, this is complicated, and you probably should run it past a certified financial planner or a CPA who has the personal financial specialist designation. Your CPA may be a great guy, but unless he’s had training in financial planning, he may not be a great choice for comprehensive financial advice.
Who doesn’t love obscure commemorative/promotional days? But this one is worthwhile since it brings attention to the state-run college savings plans that can help you pay for your children’s future education.
Here are the most important facts you need to know about college savings:
If you can save for college, you probably should. The higher your income, the more the financial aid formulas will expect you to have saved for college–even if you haven’t actually saved a dime. Even people who consider themselves middle class are often shocked by how much schools expect them to contribute toward the cost of education. (By the way, it’s the parents’ assets and income that determine financial aid, so if you don’t help your kid with college costs, he or she could be really screwed–no money for school and perhaps no hope of need-based financial aid.)
More savings=less debt. Most financial aid is in the form of loans these days, so your saving now will reduce your kid’s debt later. (A CFP once told me to substitute the words “massive debt” when I see “financial aid.” So when you say, “I want my child to get the most financial aid possible,” I hear: “I want my child to get the most massive debt possible.”
529 plans get favorable treatment in financial aid formulas. These accounts are presumed owned by the parent, so less you’re expected to spend less than 6% of the total each year–compared to 35% of student-owned assets.
A few months ago I gave a verbal spanking to a woman who equated college loans with handouts. She wondered why people didn’t just delay college for a year and earn enough money to pay for their entire education, as she did back in the day.
I pointed out that there weren’t many jobs available to newly-minted high school graduates that paid $60,000, which is about the minimum you’d need to pay for a four-year degree today.
Apparently my reader isn’t the only one having trouble keeping up with the times. A recent New York Times story quoted Virginia Foxx, a Congresswoman from North Carolina who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, saying she was bewildered why people went into debt instead of working their way through school the way she did.
Here’s what Times writer Ron Lieber pointed out:
But students nowadays who try to work their way through college without parental support or loans face a financial challenge of a different order than the one that Ms. Foxx, 69, confronted as a University of North Carolina undergraduate more than 40 years ago. Today, a bachelor’s degree from Appalachian State, the largest university in her district, can easily cost $80,000 for a state resident, including tuition, room, board and other costs. Back in her day, the total was about $550 a year. Even with inflation, that would translate to just over $4,000 for each year it takes to earn a degree.
A plucky, lucky few manage to get through college with no loans or parental support. But many of those who try wind up dropping out, unable to balance the work hours required with the demands of school.
If you’re one of those who may be stuck trying to pay your own way, Zac Bissonnette’s book “Debt Free U” can provide helpful guidance. If you’re a parent or a policymaker, however, you should check your views about the viability of kids’ working their way through college with today’s realities.
I’m hearing too many older people espouse the view that college degrees aren’t as valuable these days because more people have them. They need an Econ 101 review. It’s true that the price or value of something may drop if the supply increases—but only if the demand for that thing does not increase as well.
In the case of college degrees, demand has risen dramatically. Part of that is because so many jobs that didn’t require degrees have been made obsolete by technology or been outsourced overseas. (When Grandpa says he knows lots of people who made good livings without post-high-school training, ask him what they did—and if those factories and union jobs still exist.)
But employers are pickier as well, using college degrees as a screening device for jobs that in the past didn’t require them.
It’s true that incomes for college graduates dropped during recent economic hard times and unemployment rose. But the situation was a lot worse for folks without a college degree, according to a Pew Charitable Trust report released yesterday.
Back to supply and demand: The demand for post-secondary educations helped push up the net cost of college during the 2000s. The College Board says the net price of college tuition (the sticker price minus financial aid) rose 75% between 2002 and 2011.
But now demand seems to be softening, according to a Moody’s Investor Service report, thanks to a tough economy and a smaller pool of high school students. As a result, more schools are freezing tuition costs or at least holding down the increases and offering more financial aid. That’s good news for those heading off to college in coming years.
None of this means a college degree is worth any price. Too many families are overdosing on debt to get educations they really can’t afford. Getting a good value also requires college students to pick their majors carefully, since some degrees are worth a lot more than others.
But college degrees are and will remain all but essential in the 21st century if you want to get ahead financial, or even just remain in the middle class. That wasn’t true in Grandpa’s day, but it’s true now.
Dear Liz: We have a family member who recently was approved by Social Security for a complete disability claim. This person will never work again but has an outstanding student loan. The lender has a formal mechanism to apply for loan forgiveness, but is refusing to accept medical documentation of the disability. What appeal process is there and how can we force them to act? Do we need to retain legal counsel and incur additional expense to enforce a legal process and achieve loan forgiveness?
Answer: Federal student loans offer a “total and permanent disability discharge” that forgives outstanding education debt. You can find the rules and an application at DisabilityDischarge.com.
The rules for private student loans, however, vary by lender. Four lenders — Sallie Mae, New York Higher Education Services Corp., Discover and Wells Fargo — offer a discharge for total and permanent disability that is similar to the federal one, said Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of the FinAid.org and FastWeb.com financial aid sites. The Sallie Mae discharge is also provided on loans made through lenders that market the Sallie Mae loans, such as Commerce Bank, Fifth Third Bank and Regions Bank, Kantrowitz said.
Other lenders do not offer such a discharge, but all have a compassionate review process for their private student loans, he said.
“Borrowers in a difficult financial situation, or their family or other representatives, should contact the lender that holds the loan directly,” Kantrowitz said. “The call center staff are not always familiar with the compassionate review process.”
Lenders are generally more likely to cancel some or all of the debt, or at least reduce the interest rate, in a situation that permanently affects the borrower’s ability to repay, Kantrowitz said. They are less likely to make an adjustment when the loan was cosigned and the cosigner is capable of repaying the debt.
“But it varies,” Kantrowitz said. “I’ve seen some cases in which the borrower was military and killed in action where the lender forgave the loans even though the cosigners were capable of repaying the debt. Another example involved a mother whose daughter dropped dead on an athletic field and the mother’s anguish was palpable in the letter to the lender.”
Debt cancellation comes with another issue: taxes. Forgiven debt is typically treated as taxable income by the IRS. Your family member may be able to avoid the taxes if he or she is insolvent, but a tax professional should be consulted.