Q&A: Uniform Transfers to Minors Act

Dear Liz: My in-laws have gifted stock to our children through the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) to help pay future college expenses. The value of the stock has increased significantly over the past few years.

We would like to sell the shares and move the proceeds into more stable investments for our children. What are our options for those funds? Do you recommend one option over another? I don’t expect them to get much need-based financial aid.

Our household income is approximately $95,000 a year. We have 529 plans for each of our three children and account currently has $6,000 to $9,000.

Answer: If you only have one child in college at a time, then you’re right that you probably won’t get much need-based aid.

If, however, your kids are close enough in age that more than one will attending college simultaneously, you may qualify for more help than you think. One way to find out is to use the EFC Calculator at the College Board website, which can give you an estimate of the amount your family is expected to contribute to higher education costs.

If your kids may get need-based financial aid, then they probably shouldn’t have money in UTMA or other custodial accounts. UTMA accounts and their predecessor, Uniform Gift to Minors Act or UGMA accounts, used to be a good way to save on taxes but changes to the so-called “kiddie tax” rules have made them less appealing.

Income from the accounts above $2,000 a year for children under 19 and full-time college students under 24 is now taxed at the parent’s rate. What’s more, these custodial accounts count heavily against families in financial aid calculations.

Often it’s best to spend down the money by the child’s junior year in high school (by paying for tutoring, a laptop, private school or other expenses that benefit the child.)

Another option is to transfer the proceeds to a 529 college savings plan, since these state-run investment accounts typically are viewed favorably in financial aid formulas. What’s more, the plans offer professional management and diversified portfolios known as “age-weighted” options that grow more conservative as a child approaches college age.

You’ll want to talk to a tax pro about what makes sense in your specific situation, especially since selling the shares all at once may trigger a big tax bill.

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