Three Options for Excess 529 Plan Funds

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The #1 question I hear from parents wondering about opening a 529 Plan to save for their child’s education is: what happens to unused money in the plan.

Don’t worry. A 529 Plan is not a use-it-or-lose-it account. There are several ways you can use those funds. Some with greater tax benefits than others.

Today you can find me at Forbes sharing three options for excess cash in a 529 Plan.

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Why We Save For Our Child’s College Education

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

I’ve mentioned before that my parents did not have any money set aside for my college education. I don’t blame them. I was the third of seven kids in a firmly middle-class family. Keeping all of us fed and in good health must have been a major financial undertaking. I spent many years working my way through college and eventually took out a few student loans to finish up my last few semesters.

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My husband’s parents didn’t help him pay for college, either. His parents prioritized their retirement savings – as they should. He worked all summer and during the semester to pay for tuition, books and other expenses. He made it through college debt-free but lived on condiment sandwiches for most of his college years because he couldn’t afford groceries. Lest you think I’m exaggerating, he literally ate condiment sandwiches. He must’ve developed a taste for it because to this day, ketchup and mustard make up a large segment of our grocery budget.

 

For these reasons, we started saving for our son’s college education shortly after he was born.

Virtually everyone thinks saving for college is important, but according to the College Savings Foundation, just over half are actually putting money away for their child’s education. Less than half have more than $5,000 saved. With the projected cost of a four-year degree from a public in-state university nearing $100,000 by 2033 (nearly $325,000 at a private college), there is not much time to cover the gap.

Meanwhile, the student loan debt crisis is being blamed for the slow growth of the US economy, since students graduating with mountains of debt aren’t buying homes and cars and the other major purchases that drive economic growth.

There are plenty of arguments to be made against paying for your child’s education, including some studies that suggest that students who pay their own way do better in school. Based on my own experience, this rings true. My college boyfriend’s parents paid his way through college and insisted he not work during the semester so he could concentrate on school. His concentration was more focused on the nightclub than the classroom and he barely eked out a four-year degree in six years. We fought often about his lack of interest in the education that was being handed to him on a silver platter while I struggled to pay my own way.

Our parents are quick to remind us that we don’t owe our son a college education. That may be true, but we believe that saving for his education ensures that our son won’t graduate from college deeply in debt before he even starts his career.  We want to raise him to be financially independent, but one of the largest barriers to achieving financial independence is the rising cost of college tuition and student loan debt.

I believe we’re putting the right financial priorities ahead of college savings: we have an emergency fund and we are not prioritizing college savings over our own retirement. According to this college cost calculator, we’ll have enough to cover about 50% of a four-year degree at an in-state public university. (Bear down!) He’ll probably have to try to get scholarships and work a few hours a week during college, and that’s just fine.

Interestingly enough, both of our parents are now making regular contributions to our son’s 529 plan, so I guess they believe in saving for college after all.

Good News for 529 Plans May Lead to Lower Fees

This post originally appeared on Forbes.

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The Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act provided an important update to 529 plans, retroactive to the beginning of 2015. However, since Congress didn’t get around to passing the legislation until the mid-December, 529 plan administrators were left in a bind to adjust their software to issue correct 1099-Qs that reflect the new rules. Fortunately for 529 plan administrators, the IRS has promised not to impose penalties for earnings computations that do not reflect the new law.

In theory, by eliminating the distribution aggregation requirements, the PATH Act makes accounting for the plans less cumbersome for plan administrators, which in turn makes them cheaper to operate and those savings can be passed on to families in the form of lower fees.

However, even though the proposed legislation to eliminate distribution aggregation requirements first popped up in January of 2015 with H.R. 529, a bipartisan piece of legislation drafted by Rep. Lynne Jenkins (R-KS) and Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) in response to President Obama’s short-lived proposal to eliminate the federal tax benefit of 529 plans, i

The timing left 529 plan administrators scrambling to adjust their systems to retroactively accommodate the new method of calculating the earnings portion of a distribution on Form 1099-Q.

Not only that, but 2015 also brought about increased – and enforced – penalties for late filing of 1099 forms. In June 2015, Congress passed the Trade Preferences Extension Act, increasing penalties for failing to file timely, correct 1099-series informational returns from $100 per form to $250 per form. Because the increased penalties apply to both the copy of the form filed with the recipient and the copy filed with the IRS, the penalties are essentially $500 per form. The deadline to send 1099s to recipients was January 31st. In the past, late filing fees were generally waived by the IRS as long as the forms were filed, but the IRS has indicated they will start enforcing penalties.

Fortunately for 529 plan administrators, the IRS issued Notice 2016-13 on February 1st, providing transition relief. The IRS has announced it will not impose penalties solely because of a reported earnings computation that does not reflect the repeal of the distribution aggregation requirements. The deadline of January 1 still stands, but 529 plan administrators will not be penalized if the calculated earnings or basis reported on 1099-Qs do not reflect the new law.

If an account beneficiary receives a 1099-Q with aggregated distributions and would prefer to have their earnings computed for 2015 without aggregation, a corrected 1099-Q will have to be requested from the plan administrator.

(Photo credit: Pomp and Circumstance by Dave Herholz via Flickr)