Added burdens for trustee



Dear Joe, Grandparents who have established a 529 plan for three grandchildren have recently set up a living trust. The 529 plans have one grandparent as the owner and the other as the successor owner. Should the living trust be listed behind the successor owner as a contingency? -- Randy


Dear Randy,

While it's possible in most 529 plans to name a trust as successor owner, the grandparents should consider whether their reasons for doing so justify the added complexity.

In my experience, the best reason to name a trust as successor is to ensure that the grandparents' desires are carried out no matter what happens in the future. If an individual successor were named, that individual assumes full control and ownership of the 529 assets, including the right to distribute them for his or her own use regardless of the educational needs of the named beneficiary. A trustee, on the other hand, must act in accordance with the instructions contained in the trust instrument. If both grandparents were to die before the 529 plan is fully used, the balance left to the trust stays dedicated to the college expenses of the named beneficiary.

But making a trust the 529 owner places added burdens on the trustee to manage the account separately from other trust assets. There may be special legal and tax considerations when determining how best to use the 529 plan, particularly in trusts set up so that assets may be "sprinkled" among the trust beneficiaries. A 529 account can have only one beneficiary at a time.

Will the trustee feel comfortable in handling these added complexities, or will more money have to be spent on legal and tax help?

A more typical approach is for the grandparents to name the grandchild's parent as contingent or successor owner of the 529 accounts. Presumably, the parents will respect the wishes of the grandparents and use the 529 money to educate the child. If no successor is named, most 529 plans will establish the account beneficiary as the owner. If the beneficiary is a minor, the child's legal guardian handles the 529 account until the beneficiary reaches majority age. That may not be the worst result.

Living trusts are popular as a way to avoid probate expenses in an estate. In most states, a 529 plan avoids probate anyway, and will pass directly to the named successor owner.

Popular Questions


Two kids, two 529 plans?

Dear Big Bill,
While it's possible to maintain a 529 plan in just one child's name, even when you intend to send more than one child to college, I generally recommend that families open a separate 529 account for each child.

That's assuming there is no additional cost to maintaining multiple accounts. If your 529 plan charges an annual or quarterly account maintenance fee, check to see if you can avoid the fee by signing up for automatic contributions through payroll deduction or electronic funds transfer)

With a separate 529 plan for each child, it becomes easier for you to tailor the mix of stocks, bonds and stable-principal investments (e.g., stable value, guaranteed principal and money market funds) to the particular ages of your children. When your older child is nearing high school graduation, you may want to ratchet down the level of market risk in her 529 plan. At the same time, you could keep a more-aggressive asset allocation in your younger child's 529 plan, accepting more risk for a potentially higher return. Many 529 plans offer "age-based" investment options that automatically make these adjustments as the beneficiary ages.

Separate accounts for your children also offer more gift-tax leeway. Since your 529 contributions are treated as gifts from you to the account beneficiary, your $15,000 (in 2018) annual gift exclusion will go twice as far with two accounts -- one for each child -- than with just one account.

Financial aid is another reason to recommend maintaining separate accounts. You wouldn't want the investments reserved for your younger child's future college expenses to count against your older child's financial aid eligibility. Be warned: The rules here are rather murky, and the impact of a sibling's 529 account may depend on the college's own policies as well on as the type of aid -- federal or institutional -- being sought.

Finally, I believe that separate 529 accounts allow for better family bookkeeping. There will never be any doubt as to your intention to help send all of your children to college. You'll avoid the uncomfortable position of being asked to explain to a curious 8th-grader why account statements are showing up in the mail with only a brother or sister's name on them. And in the event of your death or divorce, no matter how unlikely, your legal representatives and other family members will have less reason to question your actions in setting up and funding the 529 plans.

Even with separate accounts, you'll continue to have the flexibility to shift the money around in the future. You simply need to make sure that whenever funds are withdrawn from the 529 plan to pay for college they are coming from an account in the name of the child incurring the costs. It's a simple matter to change the beneficiary designation among family members at any time, transfer 529 funds between different family members' accounts or split one 529 account into two. The ability to move assets around the family is a key advantage of 529 plans when comparing other college-savings alternatives, such as Uniform Transfers to Minors Act, or UTMA, accounts.

Original Post: 2005-10-13
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Coverdell ESA vs. 529 Plan: Which to choose? (Script)

The Coverdell ESA and the 529 plan are both excellent college savings vehicles because they are both tax-free when used for college. But many families face a choice: do they use a 529 plan for all of their child's college savings, or do they use a Coverdell for the maximum amount of $2,000 each year and put any any extra savings above $2,000 into a 529 plan? In spite of its low annual contribution cap, Coverdell's are now attracting quite a few families. There are two major reasons for that. One is that only the Coverdell allows you to self-direct your investments, just like you might self-direct the investments in your IRA. The other is that in addition to college expenses, Coverdells can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for a broad range of K-12 expenses, while 529 plans are limited to K-12 tuition. This feature is appreciated most in families planning to send their children to private grade schools, which may include additional costs such as room and board or uniforms. A 529 plan, on the other hand, does not impose age limits or income limits like the Coverdell does and so overall we see a lot more money going into 529 plans than into Coverdells. Plus many savers are happy with the investment choices offered by the 529 plans and don't necessarily want to self-direct their investments. And don’t forget this: your state may be giving you a state tax deduction for using a 529 plan, but there are no states offering a state tax deduction for investing with a Coverdell ESA.

Learn more about Coverdell ESAs.

Original post date 2013-07-15
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Top 529 Plan Withdrawal Tips. (Script)

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Top 529 Plan Withdrawal Tips. (Video)

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