Q&A: This 529 college savings plan has a problem: no kids

Dear Liz: When I found out I could save for my future children by enrolling in a 529 college savings plan and not pay taxes on the growth, I started doing that three years ago. Since then I got married, and my wife decided to get an MBA. I have $41,000 saved away for my currently nonexistent children. Am I able to transfer that money to my wife and use it to pay for her MBA without getting penalties?

Answer: Yes.

The beneficiary of your 529 plan is not actually your unborn children, since you can’t open these plans for nonexistent kids. When you started the account and were asked for the beneficiary’s Social Security number, you probably provided your own.

That could have created a small problem down the road when you did have kids because changing the beneficiary to someone one generation removed — from parent to child, for example — is technically making a gift, and gifts in excess of $15,000 per recipient per year are supposed to be reported to the IRS using a gift tax return. Fortunately, you wouldn’t actually owe any gift tax until you’d given away several million dollars above that annual limit.

By contrast, changing the beneficiary to a family member in the same generation — from yourself to a spouse, for example — is not considered a gift and wouldn’t trigger the need to file a gift tax return.

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How to fund college if you didn’t save enough

If college tuition bills are looming and you don’t have nearly enough saved, you have plenty of company. But you also have options for making it more affordable.

Four out of 10 families who hope to send kids to college aren’t saving for that goal, according to student loan company Sallie Mae. Among those who are, parents of children aged 13 to 17 have saved an average of $22,985.

That’s not enough to pay for the typical college education out of pocket. The net average cost for a year of college, after scholarships and grants were deducted, was $15,367 in 2017, according to Sallie Mae. That means a four-year degree is likely to cost over $60,000. The expense can, of course, be much higher since many elite schools now charge $70,000 a year or more.

In my latest for the Associated Press, steps to take now to secure an affordable education — and avoid crushing debt.

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Q&A: Best savings vehicle for a baby

Dear Liz: I recently gave birth to a little boy. I am wondering about the best savings vehicle that would offer flexibility for when family gives him money. I don’t want to tie it up in a 529 college savings plan in case he doesn’t want to go to college or has other needs.

Answer: If you want your child to have a reasonable shot at a middle-class lifestyle in the future, some kind of post-secondary education will be necessary. It may not be a four-year degree; it could be a one- or two-year training program, and a 529 college savings plan can help pay for that. Money contributed to a 529 plan grows tax-deferred and can be used tax-free at nearly all colleges, universities and community colleges as well as many career and technical schools.

You will remain in control of the account and can withdraw money for other purposes if necessary, although you would owe income taxes and a 10% federal penalty on any gains.

If you really can’t accept any limitations on how the money is used, then you can open a brokerage account in your own name and invest the money there. Putting the money in his name could hurt his chances for financial aid if he does decide to go to college.

Q&A: State tax breaks for 529 plans

Dear Liz: You recently answered a question from grandparents who were contributing $20,000 to their grandson’s college education. You correctly told them they did not qualify fdownloador federal education tax credits or deductions because he was not a dependent. You might let grandparents know, however, that they may get a state tax break for contributing to a 529 college savings plan.

Answer: Most states that have state income taxes offer some sort of a tax break for 529 college savings plan contributions. (The exceptions are California, Delaware, Hawaii, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and North Carolina, according to SavingForCollege.com. Tennessee has a tax on interest and dividends but no 529 tax break.) In some states, even short-term contributions qualify for a deduction, so grandparents could contribute money that’s quickly withdrawn to pay qualified higher education expenses and still get the break. SavingForCollege has details on each state’s tax benefits.

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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.