Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate?

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They’re also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax fre,e as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

What Is the Tax-Law Exception for 529 College Plans in 2021?

Grandparents might use this tactic to dramatically reduce their estate, without using any of their lifetime exemption if they meet some conditions, explains Financial Advisor’s recent article entitled “Tax Break Adds Perk To 529 College Plans.” That’s five years’ worth of the standard $15,000 annual exclusion that normally applies to 2021 gifts. Your spouse can also make the same gift.

You could give a five-year gift of $150,000 per couple and report it on a gift tax return. This uses none of your exemption. You should fund the educations of grandchildren or children, while they are young. If they end up being academic stars or athletes, scholarships can be adjusted against the 529 plan. If they choose not to go to college, you can select a new beneficiary. It is a smart way to frontload the 529 and take advantage of the tax-free growth.

Income earned in any qualified distributions from a 529 are typically not taxed, except under some states’ special rules. Non-qualified distributions are taxed and subject to a 10% penalty. Note that a 529 withdrawal to pay for health insurance or other medical expenses is a non-qualified distribution.

Many people get befuddled by filing a gift tax return. They think a tax is due. However, in fact, it is just a letter to the IRS informing them that you are using some of your lifetime exemption now.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 also permitted 529 money to be used for tuition for grades K-12. Therefore, frontloading the contribution makes for potentially faster accumulation of assets in the plan, which could be helpful due to the shorter timeframe between funding and use.

There are some conditions to note in the current political climate. If a donor funds a plan with $75,000 for the benefit of an individual, that donor could not give that person any additional gifts over the five years without using their lifetime exemption (now $11.7 million per person). If that exemption amount were to be reduced, it is possible that a person will have used up their lifetime exemption and would not be able to give additional gifts above the annual exclusion without paying gift tax.

This tax break comes with another catch: if the donor dies within the five years, the balance reverts back to the deceased donor’s estate.

You should know that the downside is limited investment options. Plans are generally conservative, so you do not lose your principal. There also may be high fees and costs. The plans often impede students who apply for financial aid, though not as much as some other investment holdings.

Reference: Financial Advisor (May 3, 2021) “Tax Break Adds Perk To 529 College Plans”

The SECURE Act and Your Retirement

For anyone who has saved a high six- or seven-figure balance in their retirement accounts, the SECURE Act will definitely affect their retirement plans. That includes 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and other workplace plans, as well as traditional IRAs and Roth IRA accounts. The article “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement” from the Daily Camera provides a clear picture of the changes.

Stretch IRAs are Curtailed. Anyone who inherited an IRA (traditional or Roth) from a parent before 2020, may take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from those accounts over their own life expectancy. Let’s say a parent died when you were 48—you could stretch those distributions out over the course of 36 years. This option gave heirs the ability to spread income and the taxes that come with the income out over decades—with little distributions having little impact on taxes. If you inherited a Roth IRA, you could benefit from its tax-free growth over your entire lifetime.

All that’s changed now. A non-spousal heir (or one who is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child) now has ten years in which to take their distributions. They have to pay ordinary income taxes on the amount they take out, over a far shorter period of time. Newly inherited Roth IRAs have the same rules, but usually there are no taxes due. If a minor inherits an IRA, once they reach the age of majority, they have ten years in which to take their distributions.

A Small Break for Required IRA Distributions. Until the SECURE Act, retirees had to start taking their RMDs out of IRAs soon after turning 70½. The new age for taking RMDs is now 72 for those who are younger than age 70½ at the end of 2019. This won’t alter the plans of most retirees, since they usually start taking those distributions well before age 72 to cover expenses. Roth IRAs have another benefit: they continue to escape distribution requirements, unless they are inherited.

No Age Cap for Traditional IRA Contributions. Workers may now continue to contribute funds into a traditional IRA at any age. Before the SECURE Act, workers had to stop contributing funds once they turned 70½. Note that you or your spouse are still required to have earned income to put funds in a traditional or Roth IRA.

Other Changes. There are many more changes from the SECURE Act and thought leaders in the estate planning community will be reviewing and analyzing the law for months, or perhaps years, to come. Some of the changes that are widely recognized already include the ability to withdraw $5,000 penalty-free from retirement plan accounts per newly born or adopted child, although in most cases, income tax will need to be paid on the withdrawal.

Section 529 educational savings accounts can be used, up to a lifetime limit of $10,000 per student, to pay off student loans. In most states, this will be considered a non-qualified withdrawal and state income taxes will be due, but at least the money can be used for this purpose.

Lastly, there are new tax credits available to smaller companies that set up new retirement plans, and there are new rules regarding including part-time employees in company sponsored 401(k) plans.

The changes from the SECURE Act, particularly regarding the loss of the IRA Stretch, have created a need for people to review their estate plans, if they included leaving large retirement accounts to their children. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your plan still works.

Reference: Daily Camera (Jan. 11, 2020) “How the new Secure Act affects your retirement”

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review
401k concept photo

SECURE Act Means It’s Time for an Estate Plan Review

The most significant legislation affecting retirement was signed into law on Friday, Dec. 20, 2019. After stalling for months, Congress suddenly passed several bills, as attachments to budget appropriations, as reported by Advisor News’ article “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans.”

Here are some of the key points that retirees and those planning their retirements need to know:

Changes to Age Limits for IRA and 401(k) Accounts. The age for taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) has increased from 70½ to 72 years. Adding a year and a half for investors to put away money for retirement gives a little more time to prepare for longer lifespans. The change recognizes the prior limits were arbitrary, and that Americans need to save more.

However, the SECURE Act also brought about the demise of the “stretch” IRA. Americans who inherit an IRA must now withdraw the money within 10 years of the account owner’s death, along with paying taxes. Surviving spouses and minor children are still exempt. The exempt heirs can still spend down inherited IRA accounts over their lifetime, which is an estate planning strategy known as the “stretch.”

Small Business 401(k)s. The SECURE Act expands access to Multiple Employer Plans, known as MEPs, so that employers can pool resources and share the costs of retirement plans for employees. This will cut administration and management costs and ideally, will allow more small businesses to offer higher-quality plans available to their employees.

The law also enhances automatic enrollment and auto-escalation, letting companies automatically enroll employees into a retirement plan at a rate of 6%, instead of 3%. Employers can now raise employee contributions to a maximum of 15% of their annual pay, although workers can opt out of these plans at any time.

Annuities Options. The SECURE Act now allows 401(k) plans to offer annuities as a retirement plan option. Experts have mixed opinions on this. Annuities are a type of life insurance that convert retirement savings into lifetime income. However, fees are often high, and if the insurance company closes its doors, those lifetime income payments may vanish. Under the new law, employers also have what’s called a “safe harbor” from being sued, if annuity providers go out of business or stop making payments to annuity purchasers. Being freed from liability may make employers more likely to offer annuities, but that may put 401(k) investors at more risk, say consumer advocates.

529 Plans and Saving for Children. The new law expands 529 accounts to cover many more types of education, from registered apprenticeships, homeschooling, private elementary, secondary or religious schools. Up to $10,000 can be used for qualified student loan repayments, including for siblings.

Reference: Advisor News (December 23, 2019) “SECURE Act, Signed by Trump, A Game-Changer For Retirement Plans”

How Should I Prepare for My Child’s Future?

It’s been a common path for millennials and their predecessors to go to a four-year college and get a job. If they were short on funds, they’d take out some loans. However, there have been some signals that this norm is changing.

With worries about a student debt crisis and with the experience of recent graduates, new college-age students are increasingly turning to alternatives to the established route to create their own debt-free future.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “How to Stay Flexible in Saving for Your Child’s Future” says that student debt is leading to obstacles, when it comes to achieving major milestones of financial freedom. Of the young millennials surveyed, nearly half (47%) said they delayed purchasing a home because of  their debt, 40% delayed saving for retirement and 31% waited to move out of their parents’ home. A total of 28% of parents said they delayed saving for their own retirement, to pay for their children’s education.

Saving for a child’s future now looks different than when these 18-year-olds were born.  It certainly will be the case, when they leave the nest. As a result, it’s critical for parents to try to give them help, by learning how to adapt to the changing times.

With the gig economy and digitally enabled side jobs, parents have more flexibility to maintain their financial goals, while preserving their personal lives.

When considering flexibility, especially when saving for a child’s education, it’s actually one of the big benefits of a 529 plan. Although you’re responsible if you make a withdrawal that isn’t for a qualified education expense, the penalties aren’t too steep. Federal income tax is imposed on the plan’s growth, plus a 10% penalty on the growth. Therefore, depending on the amount withdrawn, the penalty may be very little.

Nonetheless, the tax penalties may worry parents enough that even when their goal is to save for their child’s education, they want to spread their savings into multiple accounts. This has some clear advantages, when the child decides not to go to college after high school. The good news is that there are plenty of options to account for both possibilities.

  • Other investment accounts: You could also create a brokerage account with money earmarked for a child. This gives parents complete flexibility in how the money is used. The money can be used for expenses other than education, but the downside is not having the tax benefits of the 529 plan (tax deferral and potential tax-free growth).
  • Trusts: a trust allows parents to keep complete control over the funds and lets parents provide instructions to the trustee, on how the trust can be used.
  • Custodial accounts: These accounts are managed by a guardian (or custodian), until the child is an adult. These accounts are pretty easy to set up but don’t have the restrictions that can be placed on trust funds.

The digital world has changed everything, including how we plan for our children and their future. Be flexible and make your plans accordingly.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 27, 2019) “How to Stay Flexible in Saving for Your Child’s Future”