Benefits of 529 Plans

529 Plans have benefits beyond tax-deferred earnings which make them attractive options for educational funding.

I’ve been discussing 529 plans, how they work and their benefits far more frequently with clients than I used to.  You might think that tax-deferred savings is the main benefit, along with tax-free withdrawals for qualifying higher education expenses in 529 plans. However, there are also state tax incentives, such as tax deductions, credits, grants, or exemption from financial aid consideration from in-state schools in certain states.  Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)” says there are many more advantages to the college savings programs than simple tax benefits.

1) Registered Apprenticeship Programs Qualify. You can make qualified withdrawals from a 529 plan for registered apprenticeship programs. These programs cover a wide range of areas with an average annual salary for those that complete their apprenticeship of $70,000.

2) International Schools Usually Qualify. More than 400 schools outside of the US are considered to be qualified higher education institutions. You can, therefore, make tax-free withdrawals from 529 plans for qualifying expenses at those colleges.

3) Gap Year and College Credit Classes for High School. Some gap year programs have partnered with higher education institutions to qualify for funding from 529 accounts. This includes some international and domestic gap year, outdoor education, study-abroad, wilderness survival, sustainable living trades and art programs. Primary school students over 14 can also use 529 plans for college credit classes, where available.

4) Get Your Money Back if Not Going to College. If your beneficiary meets certain criteria, it’s possible to avoid a 10% penalty and changing the plan from tax-free to tax-deferred. For this to happen, the beneficiary must:

  • Receive a tax-free scholarship or grant
  • Attend a US military academy
  • Die or become disabled; or
  • Get assistance through a qualifying employer-assisted college savings program.

Note that 529 plans are technically revocable. Therefore, you can rescind the gift and pull the assets back into the estate of the account owner. However, there are tax consequences, including tax on earnings plus a 10% penalty tax.

5) Private K–12 Tuition Is Qualified. 529 withdrawals can be used for up to $10,000 of tuition expenses at private K–12 schools. However, other expenses, such as computers, supplies, travel and other costs are not qualified.

6) Pay Off Your Student Loans. If you graduate with some money leftover in a 529 account, it can be used for up to $10,000 in certain student loan repayments.

7) Estate Planning. Contributions to a 529 plan are completed gifts to the beneficiary. These can be “superfunded” for up to $75,000 per beneficiary in a single year, effectively using five years’ worth of annual gift tax exemption up front. For retirees with significant RMDs (required minimum distributions) from qualified accounts, such as 401(k)s and traditional IRAs, the 529 plan offers high contribution limits across multiple beneficiaries, while retaining control of the assets during the lifetime of the account owner. Assets also pass by contract upon death, avoiding probate and estate tax.

7.5) Medicaid Benefit.  I’m going to cheat and add one more.  In Texas, transfers to 529 plans for CERTAIN beneficiaries are exempt as transactions for longterm Medicaid.  As with all Medicaid planning, you would want to do this at the advice of an attorney, but for situations where it fits, it is a very powerful spend down tool, especially where grandchildren are school age.

Reference: Forbes (July 15, 2021) “7 Benefits You Didn’t Know About 529 College Savings Plans (But Should)”

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Is it Better to Give or let Kids Inherit?

Should an inheritance remain an inheritance, given to children only after their parents die, or should parents use some of the money to help their kids out while they are still living? That’s a question that many families grapple with, reports a recent article “When to Give Inheritance Money to Your Kids,” from The Wall Street Journal.

Not every family can afford to give their children an advance on their inheritance, but for those who can, there are some things to consider:

Some financial advisors believe that “gifting with warm hands” is a better way to go. Parents can enjoy seeing their children and grandchildren benefit from having the help, based on when it is needed. Decoupling an inheritance from parental death is a happier scenario than the alternative.

Others believe that current financial needs, taxes and the tax situations of the parents and children ought to be the deciding factor. First, is there enough money for the parents to live comfortably in retirement? That includes being prepared for the cost of an unexpected health crisis that might lead them to need short- and long-term care. Follow that by understanding the tax situation of both parents and heirs. Once those answers are fully formed, then a discussion about gifting can move forward.

Another school of thought is to stop saving every penny and enjoy life to its fullest right here, right now. Some people are more concerned with maxing out their 401(k) plans than enjoying their lives. A healthy balance between protecting assets for later years, creating wealth for the next generation and having some fun too is the goal for many families.

Regardless of how you see your situation, one thing is sure: if you have any concerns about how your children will handle an inheritance, make a gift while you are living. You’ll get to see how they handle it, responsibility or recklessly. This may inform your planning for the future, including the use of spendthrift trusts.

The pandemic has forced many people to confront their own mortality and consider how they really want to spend the rest of their lives, as well as their assets. Many parents are preparing to make changes in their estate and gifting plans to accommodate needs that have arisen as a result of COVID’s economic impact.

Talk with your children about finances—yours and theirs. Discuss their needs, especially if they have been unemployed for an extended period of time. If they need money for something critical, like paying for health insurance or catching up on student loans, the gift should be made with a clear understanding of its intended purpose.

Your estate planning attorney can help create a plan that works while you are living and after you have passed. You can also see my thoughts on how to leave to your kids in a way that protects them here.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/protecting-money-from-a-childs-divorce/

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (April 30, 2021) “When to Give Inheritance Money to Your Kids”

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Protecting Inheritance from Child’s Divorce

Parents are often (maybe not always) excited when their children marry.  It’s exciting to see their adult child find a spouse, build a home, settle down and maybe think about grandchildren down the road.  However, even if the parent adores the person their child loves, it’s wise to prepare to protect our children with our plans now, says a recent article titled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” from Kiplinger.  After all, things happen and sometimes relationships don’t go the way we expect.  Protecting inheritance through prudent planning will keep the inheritance with your child if they divorce.

With the federal estate tax exemptions so high (although that may change in the very near future), planners were able to focus on other concerns in estate plans, not just taxes.  A more applicable concern for most people was how well your children will do, if and when they receive their inheritance.

Some people recognize that their children are at risk. They worry about potential divorces or a spendthrift spouse. The answer is estate planning, and more specifically, a well-designed trust. By establishing a trust as part of an estate plan, you can better protect inheritance.

If an adult child receives an inheritance and commingles it with assets owned jointly with their spouse—like a joint bank account—depending upon the state where they live, the inheritance may become a marital asset and subject to marital property division, if the couple divorces.  This is the reason these types of trusts are so important. It’s like putting the toothpaste back into the tube, you put these assets back into a protected trust once it’s owned by the child.

If the inheritance remains in a trust account, or if the trust funds are used to pay for assets that are only owned in the child’s name, the inherited wealth can be protected. This permits the child to have assets as a financial cushion, if a divorce should happen.

Placing an inheritance in a trust is often done after a first divorce, when the family learns the hard way how combined assets are treated. Wiser still is to have a trust created when the child marries. In that way, there’s less of a learning curve (not to mention more assets to preserve).

Here are three typical situations for protecting inheritance:

Minor children. Children who are 18 or younger cannot inherit assets. However, when they reach the age of majority, they legally can. A sudden and large inheritance is best placed in the hands of a trustee, who can guide them to make smart decisions and has the ability to deny requests that may seem entirely reasonable to an 18-year-old, but ridiculous to a more mature adult.  You can also set a more reasonable age for the beneficiary to take over their trust, such as 25 or 30.

Newlyweds. Most couples are divinely happy in the early years of a marriage. However, when life becomes more complicated, as it inevitably does, the marriage may be tested and might not work out. Setting up a trust after the couple has been together for five or ten years is an option.

Marriage moves into the middle years. After five or ten years, it’s likely you’ll have a clearer understanding of your child’s spouse and how their marriage is faring. If you have any doubts, talk with an estate planning attorney, and set up a trust for your child.

Estate plans should be reviewed few years, as circumstances, relationships and tax laws change. A periodic review with your estate planning attorney allows you to ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes and that it is protecting inheritance for your loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

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