Jane M. Young CFP,EA
A 529 Savings Plan is a tax advantaged college savings plan sponsored by a state or educational institution. The plan is named after section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, created in 1996. Every state offers at least one 529 plan. Investment in a 529 plan enables the owner to save money, tax free, for future college expenses on behalf of a student or “beneficiary”. Although 529 plans are generally sponsored by specific states, they may be used at any eligible college, university, or trade school throughout the country.
Funds invested in 529 plans grow tax free if they are used for qualified education expenses. Qualified education expenses include tuition, required fees, room and board, required books, and required supplies. Although contributions are made with after tax dollars, residents of Colorado can deduct contributions made to the Colorado plan from their state income taxes.
The owner of a 529 plan has full control over the account. The owner has the freedom to select or change the beneficiary and select from the investment choices. Many find 529 plans preferable over custodial accounts for minors where the assets are held in the child’s name, and are irrevocable. Once funds are transferred to a custodial account, the funds must be used for the benefit of the minor. This can have unintended consequences. Here is an example, your daughter reaches the age of majority and decides she would rather have a corvette than a college education. Unfortunately, the money is hers to spend however she pleases.
Additionally, gains on custodial accounts are fully taxable. Custodial accounts can also be detrimental to financial aid because they are viewed as assets of the student. In comparison to a custodial account, a 529 plan has less impact on a student’s eligibility for need-based financial aid. A 529 plan is viewed as an asset of the parent rather than an asset of the student.
A common concern with 529 savings plans is your child may not need the funds for college expenses. Fortunately, if your designated beneficiary gets a scholarship or decides against a college education, you can change the beneficiary to another family member or to yourself. If you don’t need the money for college expenses, you can withdraw the money from the 529 plan. However, if the funds are not used for qualified education expenses you will have to pay a 10% penalty and taxes on the gains. This in not entirely bad, you have a lump sum of money that may have been spent years ago, if you weren’t saving for college.
Investing in most 529 plans is simplified by using age weighted portfolios. These portfolios gradually transition into less risky investments as the beneficiary reaches college age.
When purchasing a 529 plan, be aware of high fees and commissions. Most states offer direct programs that don’t charge sales commissions. Colorado offers the choice of an inexpensive program directly through Vanguard, without a sales load.