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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Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?

There is a lot of focus recently on the federal estate and gift tax and the potential for changes due, and rightly so.  The tax rate is 40% of amounts gifted and left at your death above the exemption amount, which is likely to go down.  But, what a lot of people don’t consider is that some states have their own estate taxes, and in a few cases, inheritance tax.  Texas has neither, but I thought a blog on state estate and inheritance taxes would be a good follow-up to my recent blog on issues to consider when moving to a new state.  See that here:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/should-you-update-your-estate-plan-if-you-move-to-a-new-state/

Although it has fallen out of favor recently, many states still have either an estate tax, inheritance tax or some combination.  According to The Tax Foundation’s recent article entitled “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”  17 states and the District of Columbia all apply some or both of these taxes.  Hawaii and the State of Washington have the highest estate tax rates in the nation at 20%, and there are 8 states and DC that are next that apply a top rate of 16%. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.    For the New York readers, the estate tax exemption is at nearly $6 million and applies rates from about 3% up to 16% depending on how far you exceed the exemption.

6 states have inheritance taxes.  Inheritance taxes, unlike estate taxes, apply a tax rate based relationship of the decedent to the beneficiary, meaning it applies even if the estate is relatively small.  Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18%, and Maryland has the lowest top rate at 10%. All 6 of these states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.  For you Pennsylvania readers, this could be anywhere from 0% to spouse and 15% to individuals who aren’t close family members.

Estate taxes are paid by the decedent’s estate, prior to asset distribution to the heirs. The tax is imposed on the overall value of the estate less the exemption applicable to that state. Inheritance taxes may be due from either the estate or the recipient of a bequest and are based on the amount distributed to each beneficiary.

As I mentioned earlier, most states have been steering away from estate or inheritance taxes or have upped their exemption levels because estate taxes without the federal exemption hurt a state’s competitiveness. Delaware repealed its estate tax at the start of 2018, and New Jersey finished its phase out of its estate tax at the same time, though it still applies its inheritance tax.

Connecticut still is phasing in an increase to its estate exemption. They plan to mirror the federal exemption by 2023. However, as the exemption increases, the minimum tax rate also increases. In 2020, rates started at 10%, while the lowest rate in 2021 is 10.8%. Connecticut’s estate tax will have a flat rate of 12% by 2023.

In Vermont, they’re still phasing in an estate exemption increase. They are upping the exemption to $5 million on January 1, compared to $4.5 million in 2020.

DC has gone in the opposite direction. The District has dropped its estate tax exemption from $5.8 million to $4 million in 2021, but at the same time decreased its bottom rate from 12% to 11.2%.

So, it is of course a good idea to consider reviewing your estate plan when relocating, but especially if you move to states that have estate or inheritance tax.  Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about how estate and inheritance taxes affect you in your new state.

Reference: The Tax Foundation (Feb. 24, 2021) “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”

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What’s the Best Way to Go with Loans to Family?

Loans to family must be treated like real, enforceable loans to third parties if you don’t want to run afoul of gift and estate tax.

Loans are a terrific way for parents to foster a child’s independence, encourage responsibility and signal their confidence that their child can succeed on their own.  They also don’t use any of your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million per person).  But, loans to family highlight some important tax and family concerns you should be aware of.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Gifts vs. Loans: Don’t Be Generous to a Fault” tells the story of Mary Bolles. The case illustrates that parents’ actions and expectations as to repayment of the loan can recharacterize the “loan” to a taxable “gift.” That can mean unintended gift tax consequences. Mary was the mother of five who made numerous loans to each of her children. She kept copious records of each loan and any repayments. Between 1985 and 2007, she loaned her son Peter about $1.06 million to support his business ventures — despite the fact that it soon was clear he wouldn’t be able to make any more payments on the loans. None of the loans to Peter was ever formally documented, and Mary never tried to enforce the collection of any of the loans.

In late 1989, Mary created a revocable living trust, which specifically excluded Peter from any distribution of her estate when she died. While she later amended her trust to no longer exclude him, she included a formula to account for the “loans” he received in making distributions to her children. After her death, the IRS said that the entire amount of the loans, plus accrued interest, was part of her estate. They assessed the estate with a tax deficiency of $1.15 million.  The estate said the entire amount was a gift.

At trial, the court considered the factors to be weighed in deciding whether the advances were loans or gifts. Noting that the determination depends not only on how the loan was structured and documented, the court also explained that in the case of a loan to family, a major factor is whether there was an actual expectation of repayment and intent to enforce the debt.

The court compromised and held that any advances prior to 1990 were loans (about $425,000), since the evidence suggested that Mary reasonably expected that Peter would repay the loans, until he was disinherited from her trust in late 1989. The court said that the money given to Peter after he was disinherited — from 1990 onward — were gifts.

The decision shows that if you’re considering taking advantage of the elevated gift tax exemption before it sunsets, review any outstanding family loan transactions. You should see the extent to which those loans may have been transmuted into gifts over the years—which may adversely impact the amount of your remaining available exemption. The safest way to do this would be to consult an experienced estate planning attorney, who can help you safely navigate these complex rules.

When making a gift there are other considerations.  If you will make such a loan, treat it as such.  Have a lawyer prepare a loan agreement.  Create a reasonable expectation that the loan will be repaid and that you’ll enforce it.  This isn’t just for tax reasons, it is to maintain family harmony.  Giving a “loan” to one child may not sit well with the others, so make sure it is honored.  You should also consider the impact this will have on state taxes, income taxes, and long-term care planning if relevant to you.

To be safe, follow these simple steps:

  1. Document the loan transaction between the lender and borrower.
  2. Charge interest based on the government rates (AFR), which are published monthly.
  3. Make sure the borrower will have enough net worth to likely repay the loan.
  4. Get a copy of the borrower’s financial statement.
  5. If the loan sets out periodic payments, make certain these are made on time.
  6. Report the interest income you receive from the borrower on your income tax return.

Make sure that you do any intra-family loans properly to avoid any future issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 7, 2020) “Gifts vs. Loans: Don’t Be Generous to a Fault”

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