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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How Does a Charitable Trust Work?

Charitably-inclined clients often utilize charitable trusts as they give to charities while providing income and estate tax benefits.

A charitable trust can provide an alternative to meeting your wishes for charities and your loved ones, while serving to minimize tax liabilities. Attorneys often utilize them for charitably-inclined clients to reduce estate tax or capital gains tax on assets directed to the the charitable trust. There are pros and cons to consider, according to a recent article titled “Here’s how to create a charitable trust as part of an estate plan” from CNBC. Many families are considering their tax planning for the next few years, aware that the individual income tax rates may go up in the near future, as well as anticipating a drop in the estate tax exclusion amount.  Although the values will be changing, you can see this article for a decent overview of the estate tax itself.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

Creating a charitable trust may work to achieve wishes for charities, as well as loved ones.

Speaking very generally, a charitable trust is a set of assets held in a trust to benefit a charity, or possibly a charitable foundation created by the donor, for a period of time.  The time could be very short term for income tax benefits, or much longer term for estate tax benefits. The assets are then managed by the charity for a specific period of time, with some or all of the interest the assets produce benefitting the charity.When the period of time ends, the assets, now called the remainder, can go to heirs or even kept by the charity (although they are usually returned to heirs).

A charitable trust allows you to give generously to an organization that has meaning to you, while providing a generous tax break for you and your heirs. However, to achieve this, the charitable trust must be irrevocable, so you can’t change your mind once it’s set in place.

Charitable trusts provide a way to ensure current or future distributions to you or to your loved ones, depending on your unique circumstances and goals.

The two main types are Charitable Remainder Trusts and Charitable Lead Trusts. Your estate planning attorney will determine which one, if any, is appropriate for you and your family.

A Charitable Remainder Trust, or CRT, provides an income stream either to you or to individuals you select for a set period of time, which is typically your lifetime, your spouse’s lifetime, or the lifetimes of your beneficiaries.  The remaining assets are ultimately distributed to one or more charities.

By contrast, the Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) pays income to one or more charities for a set term, and the remaining assets pass to individuals, such as heirs.

For CRTs and CLTs, the annual distribution during the initial term can happen in two ways; a Unitrust (CRUT or CLUT) or an Annuity Trust (CRAT or CLAT).

In a Unitrust, the income distribution for the coming year is calculated at the end of each calendar year and it changes, as the value of the trust increases or decreases.

In an Annuity Trust, the distribution is a fixed annual distribution determined as a percentage of the initial funding value and does not change in future years.

Interest rates are a key element in determining whether to use a CLT or a CRT. Right now, with interest rates at historically low levels, a CRT yields minimal income.  The key benefits to a CRT include income tax deductions, avoidance of capital gains taxation, annual income and a wish to support nonprofit organizations.

Your estate planning attorney can work with you to determine whether a charitable trust  will serve your charitable strategy and achieves your goals of supporting the charity and building your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 22, 2020) “Here’s how to create a charitable trust as part of an estate plan”

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What Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Clients often make these estate planning mistakes which jeopardize family harmony and expose families to anxiety, delay and unnecessary cost.

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some estate planning mistakes to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Warren Burger.  He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared estate plan could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.  This example also points out that even brilliant legal minds make mistakes if they aren’t experts in this area!

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.  Clients often confront this estate planning mistake at this time of year as part of new years resolutions or as part of a financial check-up with their financial advisors, so now is an excellent time to consider it.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions, at least to the individuals in charge of the plan. If you are leaving more uneven amounts to children for example, it may be a kindness to explain why to your love ones.  Otherwise, they will be forced to come up with their own answers, which may lead to fighting. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.  Some of the worst estate disputes I’ve ever dealt with were over sentimental items.

Clients often ask about this topic, so see this article if you are interested in more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-to-avoid-family-fighting-in-my-estate/  

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have appropriate incapacity planning documents such as financial and medical Powers of Attorney so that you may speak with each other’s financial institutions and medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.  Happily this is a very easy estate planning mistake to correct, though you should consult an attorney on how to properly utilize your trust.

Don’t be naive about people you put in charge of your estate plan.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances or other self-serving motivations. However, we see this all the time. This concern must be confronted honestly, even when it is children, during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

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