6 Fast Facts About 529s

6 Fast Facts About 529s

By Karen Wallace | 10-21-15 | 06:00 AM | Email Article

While there are many different options available to help save for a college education, 529 plans continue to be one of the most popular options. Assets in 529 college-savings plans grew more than 11% last year, to nearly $215 billion at the end of 2014, according to Morningstar data.

Setting up and contributing to a 529 college-savings plan is usually a fairly straightforward process. However, whether you are new to 529s or already invest in a 529 account, understanding more about the ins and outs of how these plans work can help you maximize your investment. Below, you'll find some must-know information regarding the mechanics of 529s and how the plans work. 

In addition, there is a very helpful frequently asked questions page on the IRS' website. It contains a lot of useful information, such as what costs are considered "qualified" educational expenses. IRS Publication 970 is also a helpful resource, but a denser read. 

1) You can change the beneficiary.
The IRS rules state that provided the new beneficiary is a member of the original beneficiary's family--for example, a sibling or even a parent--the new beneficiary can use the funds in the 529 account for educational purposes without a tax penalty. 

There are a few reasons why this is a desirable feature. For one, if one of your children doesn't use all of the funds you've saved for their education for some reason--say he or she decides not to go to college or wins a scholarship--you can apply those unused funds toward a younger sibling's college education, or you could use the funds to pursue your own higher-education goals. For more on this, see this article

2) 529 Assets have a lower impact on need-based financial aid than some other college investments.
Similar to a Coverdell ESA, the money in a 529 account, if owned by someone who is not the beneficiary (such as the beneficiary's parents), has a much lower impact on need-based financial aid than student-owned assets do.

In a nutshell, here's why: Information reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is used to calculate the expected family contribution, or EFC, using a formula established by law. There is a maximum of 5.64% of parental assets counted; meanwhile, assets that are held in the student's name are counted at 20%. This difference is significant because a higher EFC means less financial aid. For more on this, see this article.

3) You don't have to stay in-state. 
You may want to invest in your state's 529 plan, depending on how good your state's plan is in terms of costs and investment options and what types of incentives your state plan offers you. For instance, some states allow you to receive a deduction or credit for 529 contributions on your state income tax. 

But if other states offer better plans, your state's tax break is weak, or your state provides a tax break on investing in other states' 529 plans, it may pay to shop around. For example, if another state's plan offers superior investment options and/or lower costs, it may even offset the tax benefits you'd receive by staying in-state. For more on this, see director of multiasset strategies Janet Yang's article "State Tax Perks and 529 Plans"Click here to see Morningstar analysts' 2015 ratings of 529 plans.

4) You can invest $70,000 (or $140,000 jointly with your spouse) in a lump sum.
If you make a contribution of up to $70,000 (or up to $140,000 for a married couple) to a beneficiary's plan, you can elect to treat the contribution as having been made over a five-calendar-year period for gift-tax purposes. (This is sometimes referred to as "superfunding.")

There are a few reasons why you might want to do this. For one, making a lump-sum investment allows your money to compound on a tax-free basis for a longer period of time. This could be beneficial especially for those who have long time horizons before the college matriculation date approaches, as many plans with longer time horizons have a stock-heavy allocation in the earlier years; having more time in the stock market gives you a better chance of outpacing the rate of tuition inflation. 

In addition, superfunding means the money gets out of your estate faster than if you made contributions each year, which could be beneficial from an estate-tax perspective.

There are some caveats to superfunding, however. For one, gifts above $14,000 a year typically require that you spread the amount equally over five calendar years and complete IRS form 709 with your federal tax return in each of those five years. Also, any amount in excess of $14,000 per year on this prorated basis must be counted toward the individual's lifetime gift-tax exclusion limits (the federal lifetime limit is $5,430,000 per individual).

5) Know the rules when using 529 funds for nonqualified expenses. 
Although it's not advisable to pull money out of a 529 because you can face serious tax consequences and penalties for doing so--not to mention you would be derailing your college-savings plan--sometimes in an emergency situation or after a job loss, you are left with few better alternatives.

In such cases, it may be better to tap college-savings vehicles before retirement-savings vehicles, considering that there are other ways, such as student loans, to pay for college; meanwhile, there are fewer options available to fund one's retirement. In addition, it's easier to get money back into a 529 than it is to get it back into an IRA or 401(k) once you've pulled it out, because you're subject to annual limits on retirement contributions--the 529 contribution limits are much less onerous, especially given that the gift tax isn't a concern for most households.

You can tap the portion of your 529 balance that comes from contributions without tax penalty because the contributions were made with aftertax dollars. However, if you want to pull from the earnings portion of your balance, you will be subject to a 10% penalty as well as any applicable federal and state income taxes. (The 10% penalty is waived, however, if the beneficiary dies or becomes disabled, or if he or she receives a scholarship.)

One thing to note, however, is that plans make distributions on a pro-rata basis, which means that you can't simply request they pay you back your contributions and leave the earnings in the account as a way to avoid paying taxes and a penalty. For more on this, see this article

The other wrinkle here is the tax break on state taxes. If you've claimed state income tax deductions for contributions to a 529 plan, you might owe back taxes on any tax breaks you received if you use the funds for nonqualified expenses.

6) You can invest in more than one type of college-savings vehicle. 
For the most part, college-savings vehicles are not mutually exclusive; in some cases, savers may benefit from holding one or more account type. For instance, assume a family wants to set up a Coverdell Education Savings Account because of the flexibility it allows in using funds for primary or secondary education (whereas the 529 can only be used for higher-education expenses) but finds that the Coverdell's lower yearly contribution amounts ($2,000 per beneficiary, per year) will not be sufficient to fund elementary and high school costs, as well as future college costs. For this family, it may make sense to direct their contributions toward both a 529 plan and a Coverdell. 

Here's an alternative scenario: Because there are no restrictions on who can set up a Coverdell account and the contributions do not have to come from earned income, a grandparent could open a Coverdell account for the beneficiary in the example above. This could be a good option for a family whose income levels exceed the maximum allowed for a Coverdell account (less than $110,000 for a single filer or $220,000 if filing a joint return). There are no income restrictions for 529 contributors.