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”

Can You Amend a Power of Attorney?

The situation facing one family is all too common. An aunt is now incapacitated with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Her brother has been her agent with a durable power of attorney in place for many years. In the course of preparing his own estate plan, he decided it’s time for one of his own children to take on the responsibility for his sister, in addition to naming his son as executor of his estate. The aunt has no spouse or children of her own.

The answers, as explained in a recent article “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney” from My San Antonio Life, all hinge on the language used in the aunt’s current durable power of attorney. If she used a form from the internet, the document is probably not going to make the transfer of agency easy. If she worked with an experienced estate planning attorney, chances are better the document includes language that addresses this common situation.

If the durable power of attorney included naming successor agents, then an attorney can prepare a resignation document that is attached to the durable power of attorney. The power of attorney document might read like this: “I appoint my brother Charles as agent. If Charles dies or is incapacitated or resigns, I hereby appoint my nephew, Phillip, to serve as a successor agent.”

If the aunt would make her wishes clear in the actual signed durable power of attorney, the nephew could relatively easily assume authority, when the father resigns the responsibility because the aunt pre-selected him for the role.

If there is a clause that appointed a successor agent, but the successor agent was not the nephew, the nephew does not become the agent and the aunt’s brother can’t transfer the POA. If there is no clause at all, the nephew and the father can’t make any changes.

In September 2017, there was a change to the law that required durable power of attorney documents to specifically grant such power to delegate the role to someone else. The law varies from state to state, so a local estate planning attorney needs to be asked about this issue.

If there is no provision allowing an agent to name a successor agent, the nephew and father cannot make the change.

Another avenue to consider: did the aunt’s estate planning attorney include a provision that allows the durable power of attorney to establish a living trust to benefit the aunt and to transfer assets into the trust? Part of creating a trust is determining who will serve as a trustee, or manager, of the trust. If such a clause exists in the durable power of attorney and the father uses it to establish and fund a trust, he can then name his son, the nephew, as the trustee.

Taking this step would place all of the aunt’s assets under the nephew’s control. He would still not be the aunt’s agent under her power of attorney. Responsibility for certain tasks, like filing the aunt’s income taxes, will still be the responsibility of the durable power of attorney.

If her durable power of attorney does not include establishing a living trust, the most likely course is the father will need to resign as agent and the nephew will need to file in court to become the aunt’s guardian. This is a time-consuming and slow-paced process, where the court will become heavily involved with supervision and regular reporting. It is the worst possible option, but it may also be the only option.

If your family is facing this type of situation, begin by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to find out what options exist in your state, and it might be resolved.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Jan. 25, 2021) “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney”