Q&A: How to tap an unused 529 college savings plan without getting taxed

Dear Liz: I opened a 529 college savings plan for our son and over the years it grew. My son was fortunate to receive a full-ride academic scholarship and therefore much of the money stayed in the plan. Recently my son became a new father to my first grandchild. I know that it is permissible to give five years’ worth of tax-free giving in setting up a new 529 plan for a child. My question is: Can I transfer five years of annual gift-tax-free giving ($85,000) to my grandchild from the account originally set up for my son without incurring a gift tax obligation?

Answer: You’re worrying about the wrong taxes.

Few people need to be concerned about gift taxes, since someone would have to give away more than the current gift and estate tax lifetime limit for any gift to be taxable. That limit is currently $12.92 million.

The annual gift tax exclusion limit is the amount you can give away without having to file a gift tax return. The 2023 limit is $17,000 per recipient, and 529 college savings plans allow you to give up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions at one time, or $85,000. (If you are married, you and your spouse can give up to $170,000.)

A 529 college savings plan can have only one beneficiary at a time, however. With few exceptions — and we’ll get to one of those in a moment — withdrawals are tax free only if used to pay qualified education expenses for the plan’s beneficiary. So the transfer you’re proposing would incur income taxes and penalties.

You can, however, change the beneficiary of the 529 plan to your grandchild. As long as the new beneficiary is a family member of the current beneficiary, there will be no tax consequences, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. The IRS’ definition of family includes the beneficiary’s spouse, children or other descendants, parents or other ancestors, siblings and in-laws, along with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and first cousins and their spouses.

You may want to wait a few years, however. Starting in 2024, you’ll have the option to roll up to $35,000 from a 529 to a Roth IRA for your son, subject to annual contribution limits, Luscombe said. If next year’s IRA contribution limit is $7,000, for example, that would be the maximum you could roll into the Roth for the year. Your son also would have to have earned income equal to the amount rolled over.

Taking advantage of this option could be a great way to help your son build tax-free income for retirement before you switch the beneficiary designation to benefit your grandchild.

Q&A: How new rules let you roll unused 529 college savings into a retirement plan

Dear Liz: I have about $3,000 left in my daughter’s 529 college savings plan. My ex-wife has about $8,000 left. Our daughter has graduated and is not planning to get an advanced degree. It’s my understanding that new rules allow unused 529 money to be rolled into a Roth IRA in the child’s name, after taxes are paid upfront. Would this be a good move?

Answer: Possibly, and you won’t have to pay federal taxes on such rollovers, which will be available starting in 2024.

The Secure 2.0 Act, which passed into law late last year, created this new provision that allows the owner of a 529 account to transfer up to $35,000 in unused education funds to a Roth IRA for the account’s beneficiary, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting.

The 529 account must have been established for at least 15 years for a rollover to be possible. No contributions or earnings from the previous five years can be transferred to the Roth. Also, the $35,000 is a lifetime limit that can’t be transferred all at once — it’s subject to most of the annual Roth contribution rules. In 2023, for example, the maximum that can be contributed to a Roth IRA is $6,500 for people under 50 and $7,500 for people 50 and older, so it will take a few years of transfers to reach the $35,000 lifetime limit.

The IRS has yet to issue needed guidance, including how the law will affect beneficiaries like your daughter with two 529 plans. But you and your ex probably will have to coordinate these transfers to avoid exceeding the annual contribution limit. Also, if your daughter contributes her own money to an IRA or Roth IRA, that contribution would reduce the maximum that could be rolled over from a 529. If, for example, the limit is $6,500 and your daughter contributes $5,000, you’d only be able to roll a maximum of $1,500 (assuming your daughter is under 50).

There’s also some question about whether the beneficiary needs to have earned income equal to the amount contributed each year, Luscombe said. On the other hand, someone with a high income won’t be prevented from receiving these rollovers into their Roth IRA, he says. Normally, contributions to Roth IRAs have income limits, so this could be good news for higher-earning beneficiaries.

Plus, states may have to issue guidance about whether the 529 rollover to a Roth IRA is a qualified distribution for state income tax purposes, Luscombe said. If not, you might owe state taxes on the rollover even if no federal taxes are owed.

You have a few other options for unused 529 money. For example, you could change the beneficiary to a “qualified family member,” which could include yourself as well as the beneficiary’s spouse, child or other descendant, a sibling, stepsibling, in-law, aunt or uncle or their spouse, niece or nephew or their spouse, parents or other ancestors or a first cousin or the cousin’s spouse. Withdrawals would continue to be tax-free if used for qualified education expenses.

You also could withdraw up to $10,000 to pay student loans for the beneficiary or their sibling.

Or you could simply withdraw the money and use it however you want. You would pay income taxes and a 10% federal penalty, plus any state penalty, on the earnings. Some states offer a tax break on contributions, so you’d also want to check if there are tax implications for such withdrawals.

For many account owners, though, the Roth rollover option will be a good, tax-advantaged solution to help their beneficiaries jump-start or enhance retirement savings.

Q&A: What’s the best way to save for education? A 529 plan or I bonds?

Dear Liz: Please write a comparison of 529 college savings plans versus using I bonds for education. I had given baby gifts of 529 funds to grandkids before they had their first birthdays. But due to market volatility, this year I matched those with I bond funding for the kids. The oldest is now 6, so there is time to get past penalty issues for withdrawals should they use these for education, as I hope they will.

Answer: As mentioned in previous columns, 529 college savings plans are a flexible, tax-advantaged way to save for education costs.

Money can be used tax free for private kindergarten through 12th grade tuition as well as qualifying college expenses. Plus, up to $35,000 of leftover funds can be rolled over into a Roth IRA.

Accounts owned by parents have minimal impact on financial aid, and accounts owned by grandparents aren’t included in federal financial aid calculations at all.

College savings plans typically offer an array of investment options, including age-weighted funds that get more conservative over time. The ability to invest the money means you have a good shot at generating inflation-beating returns over time, but you also have to deal with some ups and downs in the markets.

I bonds — technically, I Series Savings Bonds — have advantages as well.

These are government-issued bonds, so you can’t lose your principal, and they are designed to help investors keep up with inflation. I bonds earn a fixed rate for the 30-year life of the bond, which is currently 0.4%, plus a semiannual variable rate pegged to inflation (currently 3.24%).

The composite rate formula for I bonds issued from November 2022 through April 2023 is 6.89%. In the previous 6 month period, bonds paid 9.62%.

The interest is added every six months to the bond’s value, rather than paid out, so bond owners can defer federal taxes until the bond is cashed in. (I bonds are exempt from state and local taxation.) And the interest can be tax free if the bond proceeds are used to pay for certain higher education costs.

Getting that tax-free treatment is somewhat complicated, however.

First, the bonds would need to be owned by the parents rather than you or the grandkids. Qualifying college expenses must have been incurred by the bond’s owner, the owner’s spouse or a dependent listed on the owner’s federal tax return.

There’s an age restriction too: The bond owner must have been at least 24 before the bonds were issued. The ability to get the exclusion ends if modified adjusted gross income is above certain limits (in 2022, it was $100,800 for singles or $158,650 for married couples filing jointly).

I bonds have other restrictions. No withdrawals are allowed in the first year of ownership. Any withdrawals made within the first five years trigger a loss of three months’ worth of interest income.

People can buy $10,000 of electronic I bonds each year, plus they can use their tax refunds to purchase an additional $5,000 of paper I bonds.

I bonds are certainly a reasonable alternative for college savings, but the various restrictions on their purchase and use may make 529 college savings plans a better option for many families.

Q&A: Financial aid and 529 plans

Dear Liz: As a grandparent who has established 529 accounts for each of my grandchildren, I was particularly interested in your advice to the writer who asked you how to use money that’s left in the 529 account to pay off a loan debt. Although it seems that “the horse had already left the barn,” why didn’t the niece use all the funds in the 529 account before accruing student loan debt? Am I missing something?

Answer: It’s possible the withdrawals could have reduced the niece’s financial aid, so she opted to take out loans instead.

In the past, the federal financial aid formula heavily penalized withdrawals from 529 college savings accounts held by people other than the beneficiary’s parents. The accounts themselves weren’t counted by the formula, but any withdrawals were treated as untaxed income to the student. The standard advice was to wait until the last financial aid form had been filed to begin taking withdrawals.

That’s going to change, although not as soon as originally expected.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 required the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, form to be simplified, removing several questions including one about whether the student got money from people other than parents.

The new FAFSA form was supposed to be released next year, but the Department of Education announced in June that the proposed changes would be delayed but implemented in time for the 2024-25 award year. Until the form has been updated, you’d be smart to hold off on tapping the 529s if your grandchildren will need financial aid.

Q&A: How a 529 plan can help with education loans after graduation

Dear Liz: I have a 529 plan for my niece who has now graduated from college. She has student loan debt and would like to use the money left in the 529 account to pay this debt. Is this allowable without incurring penalties?

Answer: Yes, up to $10,000.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act, or SECURE Act, of 2019 allows a beneficiary a lifetime limit of $10,000 to repay the beneficiary’s student loans, including federal and most private loans, without taxes or penalties. You can withdraw an additional $10,000 to repay student loans for each of her siblings.

If there’s still money left in the 529 after that, you have the option of changing the beneficiary to another qualifying family member (including the beneficiary’s spouse, children, siblings, in-laws, aunts and uncles, nieces and cousins, parents and grandparents). You also can change the beneficiary to yourself, as the account owner. Such beneficiary changes preserve your ability to make tax- and penalty-free withdrawals for qualified education expenses.

Q&A: Why 529 college savings plans are still worthwhile, especially for grandparents

Dear Liz: The state where I live, Oregon, has removed the tax deduction for 529 college savings accounts. This was quite disturbing to discover upon getting my taxes done this year. Other than the obvious savings benefit, are these accounts still worth having? Fortunately our son is almost done with college, so it won’t affect us much, but I am thinking of my two granddaughters.

Answer: Although there’s no federal tax deduction for 529 contributions, most states offer some kind of tax break or other incentive to contribute to their college savings plans. Oregon now offers a tax credit capped at $150 for single filers or $300 for married couples that doesn’t benefit higher earners as much as the previous deduction.

(Some states have no income tax and thus no deductions for 529s, while a few — California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, New Jersey and North Carolina — have a state income tax but no 529 tax break.)

College savings plans still allow your money to grow tax-deferred and to be used tax-free for your children’s education. That can be a big benefit for higher-income families, especially when they have young children. (The longer the money has to grow, the bigger the potential tax advantage.)

Grandparents may have additional reasons to contribute. Starting this year, money in a grandparent-owned 529 is completely ignored by federal financial aid formulas. (Although money in a parent-owned 529 has always received favorable financial aid treatment, distributions from a grandparent-owned 529 in the past were heavily penalized.)

So yes, 529 plans are still worthwhile for higher earners — and you’re not limited to your own state’s plan. If you’re not getting a tax incentive to stay home, you have many great options. Morningstar annually updates its list of the best 529 plans and last year singled out Illinois’ Bright Start College Savings, Michigan’s Education Savings Program and Utah’s My529 for top honors.

Q&A: Is it time to rethink college savings?

Dear Liz: My wife and I have three kids ages 4 and younger. We have been diligently saving in our state’s 529 college savings plans for all of them. Now with various concepts of free college and student debt relief gaining traction, I’m wondering if we would be better off simply investing future amounts elsewhere that don’t lock it into educational expenses, which may look very different in 14 to 18 years.

Answer: Politics is the art of the possible. Although some student debt relief is possible, as is some expansion of free college options, it’s hard to imagine a U.S. where college educations are entirely free for everyone.
Even in states that currently offer free two- or four-year public college options, the aid is typically limited to free tuition, which means students still have to pay for books, housing, meals, transportation and other costs. Some programs are need based, which means not all students qualify, and many students choose other non-free options, such as private colleges and graduate school.

So the advice hasn’t changed: If you can save for college, you probably should. You may not be able to cover all the costs of your children’s future education, but anything you save will probably reduce their future debt.
In an uncertain world, 529 college savings plans offer a lot of flexibility. The money can be used tax free for a variety of college expenses, and any unused funds can be transferred to a family member — including yourself or your wife, should either of you want to pursue more education. If you withdraw the money for non-education purposes, only the earnings portion is typically subject to income taxes and the 10% federal penalty.

Q&A: Are those 529 college savings plans still a good idea?

Dear Liz: Last week we had an infant come into this world and we’re already thinking about college. I know you’ve addressed this before, but things change and I was wondering if the 529 plan is still the way to go. If our son decides not to go to college, what are the tax consequences?

Answer: Congratulations! Yes, state-sponsored 529 college savings plans are still a great way for many families to save for future college costs. The money grows tax deferred and withdrawals are tax free when used for qualified education expenses.

Even if your son opts not to go to a four-year college, he will probably need some kind of post-secondary education. Withdrawals from 529 plans can be used to pay for any accredited school in any state, including community college and trade schools.

On the off chance that he doesn’t get any kind of schooling, or conversely gets a full ride, you can change the beneficiary so that the money pays for the education of a sibling or other close relative, including yourself. And if nobody wants to use the money for schooling, you can simply withdraw it. The earnings will be taxed and subject to a 10% penalty.

Q&A: How to protect a child’s education savings from greedy adults

Dear Liz: I understand that money for children’s college education can be put in a bank account with a parent as the trustee under the theory (I suppose) that the child might make bad decisions. In my case, money that I had worked hard for was put into a custodial account and then used by my parents for “necessary” household expenses. My family was not impoverished. This was a dreadful memory for years, and I’m not the only one. Social Security money for a relative, a child, was lost in a divorce. In another case, money was given to a parent for education, but was used in a failed real estate deal, with the children never realizing the money was meant for them. How can money be invested for a child’s education without it being available to an adult for “necessities”?

Answer: When parents take money that belongs to their children, they may not think of it as stealing. But that’s exactly what it is, legally and, of course, morally. There are clear rules for custodial accounts and trusts that should prevent such self-dealing, but often the child’s only recourse would be to sue the parents. That could make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

There wasn’t much you could have done as a child to prevent the theft. But if you ever want to give money to another child, think carefully about the integrity and ability of the person you’re putting in charge of the money.

First pay attention to how they handle their own money. Someone who’s deeply in debt or living paycheck to paycheck may not have the skills to be a good steward.

Then ask yourself, “Could I see this person taking the money if they were really hard up for cash or could otherwise justify it to themselves?”

Then pay attention to your gut reaction. If you believe the person has integrity, that doesn’t mean something bad can’t happen, but you’ve certainly reduced the odds. If you have questions, or you don’t know the person well, you may have other options.

For college expenses, you can open a 529 college savings plan, name the child as the beneficiary and continue controlling the account yourself until the money is paid out for college.

This approach can have potentially large financial aid implications if you’re not the parent, so you may need to delay distributions until after the child files his or her last financial aid form. Sites such as SavingForCollege.com have more information about how these plans interact with financial aid.

A 529 plan probably will be the best option in most situations. Otherwise, you can consult a lawyer about setting up a trust and naming a trustee other than the parents. Trust distributions also can affect financial aid, so you may need to time those carefully.

Q&A: Redirecting a 529 college savings plan

Dear Liz: Years ago when my children were young, we established 529 college savings plans for them. Unfortunately, both children ended up in the wrong crowds and never entered college. We still have the funds. What are our options? We do have a grandson now; would it be possible to change the beneficiary?

Answer: Yes. You can change a 529 plan’s beneficiary without triggering a tax bill as long as the new beneficiary is a “qualifying family member.” By the IRS’ definition, that includes the original beneficiary’s child or other descendant. (Qualifying family members also include spouses and siblings, parents, in-laws, uncles, aunts, nieces, nephews and cousins.)