Grandparents Should Consider Financial Aid When Contributing to 529 Plans

Jane Young, CFP, EA

Jane Young, CFP, EA

With the high cost of college many grandparents want to help their grandchildren with college.   One of the best ways to accomplish this can be through the use of 529 plans.

A 529 plan allows you to invest money for college with tax free earnings and tax free withdrawals, as long as the money is used for qualified higher education expenses.  Your grandchildren can use this money at any eligible post-secondary institution.  In Colorado your 529 contribution is deductible on your state income taxes.  Additionally, the owner of a 529 plan can change the beneficiary of a 529 plan as the needs of grandchildren change.

There are special gift tax benefits when contributing to a 529 plan.  The current annual gift tax exclusion is $14,000.  This means that both grandparents can gift up to $14,000 to each grandchild.  Additionally, with 529s you can make a one-time contribution of up to $70,000, if you treat the contribution as if it were made over 5 years.

Unfortunately, if your grandchildren are eligible for need based financial aid, utilizing a 529 plan for your grandchildren’s college expenses can hurt their chances of getting financial aid.  The amount invested in the 529 is not reported on the FAFSA (Free Application for Student Aid) but payments made to cover college expenses are included in the student’s income.  This income will reduce the student’s financial aid by 50% of the amount of the payment.

To avoid this problem you can transfer ownership of the 529 to the parent’s name before the student applies for financial aid.  For financial aid purposes a parental 529 is considered an asset and only 5.64% of the value is considered when calculating needs based aid.  About a dozen states do not allow transfer of ownership on 529 plans – ownership transfers are allowed in Colorado.

Alternatively, you could initially contribute to a parental 529 plan but you would lose the state income tax deduction and you lose control of the account.  The owner of the 529 account can change beneficiary designations and can spend money from the account, subject to a 10% penalty if not used for qualified college expenses.  Loss of control could be a concern in the case of divorce or blended families.

Another way to avoid an adverse impact to financial aid is to delay use of the grandparent’s 529 until January 1st of the student’s junior year in college.  Contributions after this day will have no impact on the student’s eligibility for financial aid.  You won’t have to report the 529 as an asset on FAFSA and the contributions from the account are not reported as student income.   This is a viable option if the student has other resources to pay for college up to this point and they still have enough college expenses to use all of the funds in the 529 account.

Year End Financial Planning Tips

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Jane M. Young, CFP, EA

Roth Conversion –
The income limitations on converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA have been eliminated and taxes due on a Roth conversion, processed in 2010, can be paid in 2011 and 2012.

Required Minimum Distribution –
A required minimum distribution on your IRA and 401k/403b is required every year once you attain 70 ½.

Maximize your retirement contributions –
Be sure to maximize your retirement plan contributions for 2010. Below are the maximum contributions for your 401k and IRA contributions for 2010. You have until April 15th to contribute to your IRA.

401k – $16,500 plus a $5,500 catch-up provision if you are over 50
IRA – $5,000 plus a $1,000 catch-up provision if you are over 50 (income limits apply)
Simple – $11,500 plus a $2,500 catch-up provision if you are over 50

Adjust retirement contributions for 2011 –
There is no change to 401k and IRA contribution limits between 2010 and 2011. However, if you have turned 50 you can make a catch-up contribution. A change in your income may also impact your ability to contribute to an IRA.

Harvest Tax Losses –
If you have been thinking about selling some poor performing stocks or mutual funds, do so before the end of the year to take advantage of tax losses in 2010. However, if capital gains rates increase in 2011 it may be more advantageous to offset gains in 2011.

Charity Contributions –
Go through your closets and garage before the end of the year and donate any unwanted items to get a nice deduction on your tax return. When you drop off your items be sure to get a receipt. When making a charitable contribution, consider donating appreciated stock rather than cash.

Take advantage of the annual gift allowance –
In 2010 you can gift up to $13,000 per person without paying gift tax or impacting your estate tax exemption.

Make 529 Contributions –
Contributions made to the Colorado 529 plan are deductible on your state tax return. Money can be contributed into the Colorado 529 plan for tuition that is payable in 2011.

Review your expenses and draft a new budget –
Everyone should review their expenses and revise their budget at least once a year. December is a good time of year to review historical spending habits and make adjustments to your budget for the coming year. It is difficult to establish saving goals without a good understanding of what is available after your non-discretionary expenses.

Set financial goals for 2011 –
I recommend setting new personal and financial goals at the beginning of every year. Think of it as personal strategic planning. Set some long term goals for 3-5 years then identify some action plans for the next twelve months.

Adjust tax withholdings for 2011 –
Adjust your tax withholdings or estimated taxes for anticipated changes in income and deductions in 2011.

Organize 2010 tax documents –
Year end is a good time to create a folder for all of the 2010 tax documents you will be receiving and to start organizing your expenses and receipts. You will have everything thing in one place when it comes time to complete your tax return.

Make adjustments for changes in family circumstances – birth, death, marriage, dependents, and retirement –
Major changes in your life circumstances may result in numerous changes in your financial situation. For example a birth, marriage, or death will probably necessitate a change in your will and beneficiary designations. It also may impact your income tax withholdings. The birth of a child may result in significant tax benefits. With the birth of a child you also may want to consider starting a college fund and a change in life or disability insurance.

Spend FSA accounts –
With many companies, flexible savings accounts cannot be carried over into the next year so be sure to spend the money in your FSA account this year, before you lose it.

Consider the impact of possible changes in the tax law –
If the Bush tax cuts are not extended, there is a possibility that the capital gains rate will increase from 15% to 20%, that tax rates will increase, and that some tax deductions will disappear. These possibilities need to be considered in making your year end financial decisions.