When to consider a Coverdell ESA to 529 plan rollover

Kathryn FlynnBy: Kathryn Flynn | 

Up until recently, the Coverdell ESA was the only tax-advantaged account designed to save for elementary and high school expenses. But the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act in 2017 expanded the definition of 529 plan qualified higher education expenses to include $10,000 per year in K-12 tuition, giving families another option.

A Coverdell ESA works very similar to a 529 savings plan – individuals contribute after-tax dollars, which grow tax-free and aren’t taxed when withdrawn to pay for qualified higher education expenses (QHEE) or qualified elementary and secondary education expenses (QESEE). QESEE for a Coverdell ESA include tuition and fees, books, supplies and equipment, academic tutoring and special needs services for beneficiaries living with a disability.

You should consider a Coverdell ESA to 529 plan rollover if:

Your income has risen, or you expect it to rise

Unlike 529 plans, Coverdell ESAs have income limits. If your adjusted gross income (AGI) is greater than $110,000 ($220,000 if married and filing jointly), you are not eligible to contribute to a Coverdell ESA. If your AGI falls between $95,000 and $110,000 ($190,000 and $220,00 if married filing jointly), your annual contribution limit will be reduced.

You want to save more than the annual $2,000 per beneficiary limit

Coverdell ESAs allow you to save up to $2,000 per year, per beneficiary. Yet according to the Private School Review, the average tuition cost for a private school in the U.S. is just over $10,000 per year.

A relative has a separate Coverdell open for your child

The contribution limit for a Coverdell ESAs is per beneficiary, not per account. That means if a parent and a grandparent have an account for the same child, the sum of contributions to both accounts must be less than $2,000 per year. Anything above the limit will be subject to a 6% excise tax.

You want more flexibility

The beneficiary of a Coverdell ESA must be under 18 years old or a special needs beneficiary, and funds must be spent by the time the beneficiary turns 30. If your child decides not to go to college or has leftover funds in the account, you will have to change the beneficiary to another child who is a qualifying family member or take a non-qualified withdrawal. With a 529 plan, parents have the option of making themselves the beneficiary and using the funds to further their own education or saving the money for a future grandchild.

You might have leftover money in the account after the beneficiary finishes college

Funds in a Coverdell ESA must be spent by the time the beneficiary turns 30.


Your Coverdell ESA has high fees

Coverdell ESAs tend to have smaller balances, which means you could end up paying more in fees. If this is the case, you may want to explore a 529 plan that offers low-cost investment options.

Your state offers a 529 tax benefit

In addition to federal tax savings, over 30 states offer a tax credit or deduction for 529 plan contributions. For example, a married couple in Indiana who contributes $200 a month to an in-state 529 plan is eligible for $360 in annual tax savings. Coverdell ESAs do not offer any state tax benefits.

How to rollover a Coverdell ESA to a 529 plan

  1. Select a 529 plan and appropriate investment options. 529 plans can be purchased directly or through a financial advisor, and you can enroll in almost any state’s 529 plan no matter where you live. Most plans offer age-based investment portfolios, which automatically shift allocations over time based on the age of the beneficiary, or static portfolios where the asset allocation remains the same over the life of the account.
  2. Withdraw the funds from your Coverdell ESA. Distributions used to fund a 529 plan are considered a qualified expense as long as both accounts have the same beneficiary.
  3. Enroll in a 529 plan and fund the account with your Coverdell ESA distribution. You may want to consider setting up a custodial 529 account, since the original Coverdell ESA was established for the benefit of the child.

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Kathryn Flynn

Kathryn Flynn

Content Director

Kathryn is Content Director at Savingforcollege.com. She has been quoted in financial publications including the Wall Street Journal, the NY Times, Fortune, Money and GOBankingRates, and has been an expert guest on personal finance podcasts. Prior to Savingforcollege.com, Kathryn worked in product marketing at Henderson Global Investors (now Janus Henderson Investors), a global asset manager. She earned her MBA with Finance Concentration from DePaul University's Kellstadt Graduate School of Business, and has prior FINRA Series 7 and 63 licenses. Kathryn has 529 college savings plans for each of her three children, and enjoys creating content to help other families prepare for future higher education costs.