Sure, most of us associate 529 accounts as college-saving vehicles. They’re flexible, allowing you to transfer assets to anyone, including yourself, for the express purpose of furthering the education of your beneficiary. But did you know that a 529 can be a powerful estate planning tool, too?
Modern Estate Planning
Not everyone is in a position to set aside money for the next generation without jeopardizing their own goals, but if you’re fortunate enough to do so, it’s worth looking into your options. Specialized savings accounts, informally referred to as 529s, should be at the top of your list. They have quite a few advantages for the beneficiaries – but there are benefits for the donors, too, given the high maximum contribution limits and tax advantages.
The special tax rules that govern these accounts allows you to pare down your taxable estate, potentially minimizing future federal gift and estate taxes. Right now, the lifetime exclusion is $11.2 million per person, so most of us don’t have to worry about our estates exceeding that limit. But that new threshold was only recently established and is due to revert back to just over $5 million per person by 2025.
Up until January 2018, each person could exclude $5.49 million of their estate from federal gift and estate tax. That was on top of the $14,000 in annual gifts you could make to any number of people. For 2018, those amounts are even higher. As mentioned before, the lifetime exclusion is now $11.2 million and the annual exemption amount is $15,000. Under the rules that uniquely govern 529s, you can make a lump-sum contribution to a 529 plan up to five times that annual limit. That means you can gift $75,000 per recipient ($150,000 for married couples), as long as you denote your five-year gift on your federal tax return and do not make any more gifts to the same recipient during that five-year period. However, you can elect to give another lump sum after those five years are up. In the meantime, your investments have the luxury of time to compound and grow.
So if you’re following along, that $150,000 gift per beneficiary won’t incur gift tax as long as you and your spouse follow the rules. If you have five grandkids and the means to do so, you can sock away $750,000 for their benefit this year. Basically, you get an opportunity to put hundreds of thousands of dollars away for your children and grandchildren, all with preferential tax treatment. On top of that? You’ll whittle your taxable estate by that same amount, potentially reducing future estate tax liabilities. That’s because contributions to 529s are considered a completed gift from the donor to the beneficiary.
Many people worry that gifting large chunks of money to a 529 means they’ll irrevocably give up control of those assets. However, 529s allow you quite a bit of control, especially if you title the account in your name. At any point, you can get your money back. Of course, that means it becomes part of your taxable estate again subject to your nominal federal tax rate, and you’ll have to pay an additional 10% penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal if you don’t use the money for your designated beneficiary’s qualified education expenses.
If your chosen beneficiary receives a scholarship or financial aid, they may not need some or all of the money you’ve stashed away in a 529. So you’ve got options here, too.
- First, you can earmark the money for other types of education, like graduate school.
- Second, you can change the beneficiary to another member of the family (ideally in the same generation), as many times as you like, since most 529s have no time limits. This option is particularly helpful if your original beneficiary chooses not to go to college at all.
- Third, you can take the money and pay the taxes on any gains. Normally, you’d expect to pay a penalty on the earnings, too. But that’s not the case for scholarships. The penalty is waived on amounts equal to the scholarship as long as they’re withdrawn the same year the scholarship is received, effectively turning your tax-free 529 into a tax-deferred investment. Of course, you can always use the funds to pay for other qualified education expenses, like room and board, books and supplies, too.
Plus, many plans offer you several investment choices, including diversified portfolios allocated among stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs and money market instruments, as well as age-based portfolios that are more growth-oriented for younger beneficiaries and less aggressive for those nearing college age.
Saving for college takes discipline, as does estate planning. It helps to take advantage of investment vehicles designed to help you along the journey. For example, by contributing to a 529 plan, you’re able to give to the beneficiary, while you, as the owner, still control the assets in the account. That money has time to grow outside of your estate, but as the account owner, you retain the freedom to do whatever you like with the plan, including changing the beneficiary or even taking the money back should you need it. Although that may incur a 10% penalty, depending on how the funds are used. In addition, 529s, like many other investments, come with fees and are subject to market fluctuations, unless you opt for a prepaid account. And you can only make changes to your asset allocation twice a year. Talk to your professional advisor about the nuances before making a years-long commitment.