6 must-know 529 plan rules

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By Kathryn Flynn

March 8, 2018

Many parents and grandparents are confused about 529 plan rules. A 529 college savings plan is an investment account where your money grows tax-free if it’s used to pay for qualified education expenses. This includes college costs, as well as $10,000 per year in tuition expenses at private, public or religious elementary and secondary schools. Unlike other savings vehicles,  there are no income limits, and no time limits imposed. In our  Annual College Savings Survey, we presented six true or false questions about 529 rules to visitors of Savingforcollege.com. Click through the slideshow to see where the biggest misconceptions lie!

1. I must use the 529 plan offered by my state of residence – FALSE

  • 20% of total respondents answered incorrectly
  • 18% of grandparents and 21% of parents answered incorrectly
  • You can enroll in almost any state’s 529 plan, no matter where you live, but your home state many offer a state tax benefits for residents.

 

2. If my child doesn’t go to college, I’ll lose the money I have saved in my 529 plan – FALSE

  • 17% of total respondents answered incorrectly
  • 10% of grandparents and 18% of parents answered incorrectly
  • If the beneficiary of a 529 account doesn’t go to college, you canchange the beneficiary or take a non-qualified withdrawal.
  • If you take a non-qualified withdrawal, you will incur income tax as well as a 10% penalty tax on the earnings portion of the account. You’ll never be taxed or penalized on the principal (the amount you deposited) since it was made with after-tax money.

3. 529 plan savings must be applied toward colleges in the state where the plan is based – FALSE

  • 16% of total respondents answered incorrectly
  • 12% of grandparents and 17% of parents answered incorrectly
  • You can use your 529 savings to pay for almost any  post-secondary education, including traditional four-year universities, community colleges, trade schools and even study abroad programs. As of January 1, 2018, families can also take a tax-free withdrawal of up to $10,000 per year, per beneficiary to pay for tuition expenses at private, public or religious elementary and high schools. 

 

4. If my child gets a scholarship, I’ll lose the money I have saved in a 529 plan – FALSE

  • 9% of total respondents answered incorrectly
  • 5% of grandparents and 10% of parents answered incorrectly
  • If a student gets a scholarship, non-qualified 529 plan withdrawals up to the amount of the tax-free scholarship will not be subject to the 10% penalty. The earnings portion of the withdrawal, however, will incur income taxes.

5. Savings in a 529 plan are considered when determining financial aid eligibility – TRUE

  • 33% of total respondents answered incorrectly
  • 37% of grandparents and 32% of parents answered incorrectly
  • Funds saved in a 529 plan owned by a parent or student are considered parental assets. When determining a student’s Expected Family Contribution, a financial aid office will count up to 5.64% of parental assets as funds available to pay for college (compared to 20% of student assets).
  • Assets in a grandparent-owned 529 plan are not reported on the FAFSA, but when the grandparent makes a withdrawal to pay tuition the amount will be reported as student income on the following year’s FAFSA. Income is assessed at 50%. Withdrawals from parent- or student-owned 529 plans have no effect on financial aid.

6. My child can never withdraw from the 529 plan without my permission – TRUE

  • 37% of respondents answered incorrectly
  • 39% of grandparents and 37% of parents answered incorrectly
  • Unlike custodial accounts under UGMA/UTMA, the 529 plan account owner (not the beneficiary) retains control of the funds throughout the life of the account. The beneficiary has no legal rights to the assets, regardless of his or her age. 

TAKE ACTION: Enroll in a 529 plan
ORIGINAL POST: 09/17/15; UPDATED 03/08/18

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