The ever-rising cost of a college education has led to the creation of college savings plans that have been given various federal tax advantages. Among these are “529 plans,” named after the section of the Internal Revenue Code that sets forth requirements for favorable tax treatment of qualified state tuition programs. 529 plans vary from state to state with regard to investment options, contribution maximums, and state income tax treatment. One type of 529 plan allows taxpayers to purchase tuition credits for a designated beneficiary, thereby locking in today’s college costs. A second type allows the donor to contribute to an investment account to pay for a beneficiary’s higher education expenses, such as tuition and room and board.
Individuals can contribute up to $50,000 to a 529 plan in one year on behalf of a beneficiary ($100,000 for married couples) without being subject to gift tax. In effect, the $50,000 contribution is treated as five separate $10,000 annual exclusion gifts. Gift tax is avoided so long as no other gifts are made to the beneficiary in the same five-year period.
Anyone can contribute to a 529 plan on behalf of the beneficiary. Grandparents, other relatives, or friends of the family can use 529 plans as an effective estate planning tool. The plans are unusual in that donors still can retain control over the account, and even take it back if necessary, while reducing the size of their estates. Under current law, earnings in a 529 plan are tax deferred, but the 2001 tax law provides that, beginning January 1, 2002, earnings taken out to pay college expenses will be tax free.
Other important changes in 529 plans were made by the 2001 federal tax legislation. Whereas plans previously had to be sponsored by a state or state agency, one or more educational institutions, including private schools, can set up prepaid tuition programs. Under the new law, money from one 529 plan can be rolled over into another such plan up to three times for the same beneficiary without having the transaction considered to be a distribution. A penalty of at least 10% of earnings formerly was imposed if the donor took back the money or the money was used for anything other than qualified expenses, but now there is a flat 10% penalty. Lastly, the new law allows a taxpayer to claim a federal tax credit for paying for a child to go to school while excluding from gross income funds distributed from a 529 plan for the same student, as long as they are used for different expenses.
Coverdell Education Savings Accounts
For individuals who want more control over their investments, a Coverdell Education Savings Account (formerly called an “Education IRA”) may be an attractive alternative to a 529 plan. A contributor to a Coverdell account can choose investments and change them, depending on his or her investment strategy. Earnings are tax-free as long as they are used for qualified education expenses. The 2001 tax law also has improved this method of saving for elementary, secondary, and college education costs. Beginning January 1, 2002, the annual limit on contributions will increase from $500 to $2,000.
An increase in the phase-out income range for married taxpayers filing jointly will allow more taxpayers to contribute to a Coverdell account. For beneficiaries with special needs, rules stopping contributions when the beneficiary turns 18 and requiring that the account be emptied when he or she turns 30 have been removed. As with 529 plans, a contributor to a Coverdell account can claim an education tax credit, though not for the same educational expenses for which Coverdell account money was used.
One note of caution: The changes to both 529 plans and Coverdell accounts made by the 2001 tax legislation will expire on December 31, 2010, unless Congress acts before then to continue them.