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COLLEGE SAVINGS 101

Coverdell ESA versus 529 Plan

Updated: 2014-10-30

by Joseph Hurley

Coverdell ESA versus 529 Plan

You're seeing more articles and media coverage of the Coverdell education savings account (ESA) these days. That's because the ESA's tax benefits were made permanent with the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA). Although it has been around since 1998—when it was called the Education IRA—the ESA has long been overshadowed by the 529 plan.

Well, its time may have come. Offering investment flexibility that is superior to the 529 plan, potentially lower costs, and tax-free treatment not just for college expenses but for elementary and secondary school costs (K-12) as well, the ESA has become a worthy competitor for your education-savings dollars.

Actually, the ESA has offered these benefits since the 2001 EGTRRA tax law. (Prior to 2002, the Education IRA was truly an atrocious vehicle, so much so that we at Savingforcollege.com labeled it the “Excedrin IRA.") But over the years we remained reluctant to recommend it, knowing that its improved features were slated to expire at the end of 2012.

If ATRA had not come along to save the ESA, we would be looking at a $500 annual per-child contribution cap beginning in 2013; K-12 expenses would no longer be qualified; and ESA distributions for college would lose tax-free status for any family claiming the Hope/American Opportunity credit or Lifetime Learning credit.

So now we are beyond all that. If your child is young enough—not yet 18 years old—and your income is low enough (the income phase-out is $95,000 to $110,000 for a single taxpayer and $190,000 to $220,000 for a married couple filing jointly), you can contribute up to $2,000 per year to a Coverdell ESA for that child.

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