How Grandparents Can Help Pay For College

Grandparents wanting to help pay for a grandchild's education may with to consider a 529 Plan.
Grandparents wanting to help pay for a grandchild’s education may with to consider a 529 Plan.

If you are a grandparent wondering how you can help pay for a grandchild’s future college education, you may wish to consider a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529, otherwise known as a 529 plan.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs that can help pay for college (and some other education expenses): prepaid plans and savings plans. The earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed, until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

One kind of 529 plan is known as a prepaid plan. With this plan you buy tuition credits at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild may not be starting college for several years. Because the cost of a college education rises every year, there is a substantial benefit to being able to lock in the cost at today’s rate.

The other kind of 529 plan is a savings plan. Even though the earnings in the plan are tax deferred and, to the extent used for qualified higher education expenses, tax-free, the amount available to pay the college costs depends on the investment performance of the plan. The more the funds in the plan grow, the more education costs can be covered. But if the value of the plan declines, fewer education costs will be covered.

Qualified higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and required equipment. Reasonable room and board may be considered a qualified expense, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions of income from the 529 plan in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, and may result in 10% penalty.

You would designate you grandchild as beneficiary of the 529 plan at the time you create it. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the plan to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary.

A 529 plan may be used to fund a grandchild’s education at any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education.

Any funds you contribute to the 529 plan will be treated as gifts to your grandchild; however they qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If you contribute more than the annual exclusion amount in a given year, you can elect to have the gift treated as being made over a five-year period starting with the year of the contribution.

While you may name yourself as custodian of the 529 plan, it is important to also designate a successor custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, in the event you are not able to act as custodian.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

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