Do you find saving for college a daunting task?
You are not alone. It’s important to know that you have options for tax-deferred education savings.
The 529 Plan is the most popular education savings vehicle available. We’ve identified 15 things you should know to get the most out of a 529 Plan.
1. What is a 529 Plan?
A 529 plan is state-sponsored investment program to help families save for college tax-free.
There are two types of 529 plans:
- 529 College Savings Plans
These plans work like a 401(k) in that your savings can be invested in stock or bond mutual funds and any earnings grow tax-free. Educational expenses such as tuition, room and board, supplies and even computers can be paid using these funds. 529 College Savings Plans are the most common type of plan and the money can be used at schools in any state. Thinking about college overseas? 529 College Savings Plan can be used with some international schools also.
- 529 Prepaid Tuition Plans
14 states have 529 Prepaid Tuition Plans (Oregon does not). With a prepaid tuition plan, you can prepay all or part of an in-state public college education. The benefit is that you can lock in tuition at today’s rates however, you must be sure that your child will be attending a public, in-state university for this to be a good option.
2. Why Use a 529 Plan Over Other Options?
There are three reasons:
- Tax-free investment growth and withdrawals
There is no federal income tax benefits associated with a 529 plan contribution. However, your investment grows tax-deferred and qualified withdrawals are federally tax-free and state tax exempt as long as they are used for qualified education expenses.
- State tax benefits
34 states offer tax deductions or credits on contributions to 529 plans, including Oregon. The 2016 Oregon deduction limit is $4,620 for married for taxpayers filing jointly. Here’s the full list of 529 plan deductions or credits.
- Estate Planning
The unique advantage to 529 plans is that the value is transferred out of your estate yet you retain full control over the account as an owner. This can be an important estate planning tool for grandparents who are looking to reduce their estate taxes at death.
3. When Should I Open a 529 Plan?
Now: tax-free, compounding investment returns are powerful. Investing $100 a month from birth will give your child $43,000 for college assuming a 7% rate of return. If you were to start saving when your child is 10, that number drops to less than $13,000.
4. What Kind of Investments are Available?
529 plans are invested in a portfolio of mutual or index funds. They are managed by the state or an outside manager such as Fidelity, TD Ameritrade, Vanguard and many others.
5. Shop Around!
Depending on the investment manager, fees can vary according to the type of investment funds the manager uses. Some states offer low cost index funds and other states only offer actively managed mutual funds so it pays to shop around, especially if your state doesn’t offer a state tax deduction for contributions.
6. Two Primary 529 Investment Strategies
There are two types of 529 plans, age-based or static.
- Age-based, or target date plans
Age-based or target date plans automatically adjust your asset mix toward a more conservative allocation as your student approaches college age. This means that you start with a higher allocation to stocks when your child is younger and by the time they reach college age, the assets are more heavily invested in cash and bonds. Using this type of automatic adjustment may be right for you if you don’t have the time or knowledge to manually adjust the account’s asset mix. It’s important to note that these age-based shifts from aggressive to conservative may not happen fast enough if the market hits a period of volatility.
- Static plans
The “static” option means that you hold an investment fund or portfolio of funds that maintain the same allocations over time.
7. Custodial Account
A 529 account is managed by a program manager: either the state or a third party investment firm. The funds are held in a custodial account meaning that your money is protected even if the state or third party has financial issues.
8. The Investment Strategy is Important
Diversification is an important risk management tool. Most 529 Plans offer an investment strategy using U.S. stocks and bonds as well as international investments. Make sure you fully understand the specific investment options and their associated risk.
9. Pay Attention to Fees
Every 529 plan has fees. These may include advisor fees, program management fees, maintenance fees and investment manager expense fees. Expect higher fees in using actively managed mutual funds compared to passive investments like exchange traded funds (ETFs).
Some states and program managers may offer incentives in the form of a fee waiver if you opt to fund your account with direct deposit.
10. Understand the Basic Rules
Both state and federal rules apply to 529 Plans:
- There can only be one owner and one beneficiary for a 529 account
- You can own more than one 529 account
- The student can be a beneficiary of more than one 529 account as long as the aggregate contributions don’t surpass the state’s account size limit. This limit varies by state and ranges from $235,000 to $425,000.
- Anyone can contribute to a 529 Plan account
- The account owner may change the beneficiary and some states permit the account owners to name a contingent beneficiary.
- Some states allow the account ownership to transfer to the beneficiary in the event the account owner dies.
- Contributions in excess of $14,000 (2016) may be subject to gift taxes. Be sure to consult your tax advisor to make sure you have not exceeded the annual gift tax exclusion limits.
11. Does the 529 Plan Affect My Financial Aid Options?
Generally, 529s have minimal impact on financial aid.
529 Plan accounts are treated favorably by the federal financial aid eligibility formula (maximum 5.64% rate) as well as financial aid income limits. A distribution from a 529 Plan to pay college expenses is not considered a “base-year income” that would reduce next year’s financial aid eligibility. It’s important to remember that federal financial aid rules are subject to change.
12. Great Option for Grandparents
Grandparents have the opportunity to support a grandchild’s college education while benefiting from specific tax treatment. Any contributions up to $14,000 qualify for annual gift tax exclusion (and up to $70,000 in one year as long as no additional contribution is made over the next five years). Any contributions are removed from their estate, thus reducing any potential estate tax liability. Depending on the state, they may also be eligible for state income tax deductions.
In addition, if grandparents are the owners of a 529 account, the funds will not impact financial aid eligibility.
13. Time Limits on Withdrawals
529 Savings Plans do not have specific withdrawal or age requirements. Prepaid Tuition Plans however, may have time limits for withdrawals.
14. Roll Overs
Every state allows for one rollover to another 529 plan per year without triggering tax penalties. However, you may have to repay state tax deductions or pay a fee if you go from an in-state plan to an out-of- state plan.
15. Prioritize Retirement
It’s important that you don’t sacrifice your retirement savings for college savings. There are no scholarships and loans available for retirement and the biggest gift you can give your children is not relying on them for financial support in retirement.
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