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Its college application season and like most parents, I’ve had to plan on how to help my kids afford college. As you make your plans, consider the two most common tax favored savings tools available.

There are two types of accounts that you can establish to save for higher education expenses in a tax favorable manner. These two types of accounts are Coverdell Education Savings Accounts and 529 Plan accounts.

The first type of account is known as a Coverdell Education Savings Account. A Coverdell account is typically set up for the higher education expenses of a child.  The contributed funds grow in the account tax deferred and the money comes out for education expenses tax free. There is no tax deduction for amounts contributed to a Coverdell but you do have significant investment options including self-directed investment options (similar to IRA rules). A Coverdell has the following rules and benefits.

COVERDELL RULES

  • $2,000 annual contribution limit per beneficiary (e.g. child or grandchild).
  • Parents (or grandparents) can contribute without limitations to a Coverdell until a beneficiary reaches age 18 if the contributor has income of $190k (married joint) or $95,000 (single).  For high-income earners, keep in mind that the child can always contribute to their own account with gifted funds (no need to have earned income).
  • Funds can be used for tuition, fees, books, and equipment for college as well as certain K-12 expenses too.
  • There are zero federal or state income tax deductions on Coverdell accounts.

COVERDELL BENEFITS

  • Accounts can be invested into stocks, mutual funds, and can even be self-directed. They operate similar to an IRA.
  • Contributions grow tax-free and can be withdrawn for education expenses until the account beneficiary reaches age 30. Unused amounts can be transferred to another family member beneficiary.

The second type of account is a 529 Plan account. Contributions to 529 Plan accounts can be eligible for a state income tax deduction (depending on the state). Money contributed to a 529 Plan account is invested into a state managed fund. A 529 has the following rules and benefits.

529 RULES

  • Amounts are invested into a state run program.
  • Amounts can be withdrawn for tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, special needs, room and board.
  • Up to a few hundred thousand dollars can be invested per beneficiary by any person.
  • There are no federal tax deductions or credits for contributions.

529 BENEFITS

  • Many states offer tax deductions for contributions to 529 Plan accounts. For example, Arizona offers a $4,000 tax deduction for married tax filers and a $2,000 deduction for single filers. Thirty-five states offer some type of state income tax deduction for 529 Plan contributions. However, there are some states, like California, who offer no tax deduction for contributions to 529 Plan accounts. Click here to see a comprehensive list that outlines the different state funds and tax deductions (or credits for some states).
  • Downside, invested amounts must be invested solely into state run programs. There are no other investment options.

In summary, Coverdell accounts have the benefit of allowing account owner’s to decide how the money will be invested with zero tax deductions available on contributions while 529 Plan accounts give you zero investment options (all funds go to state run fund) but offer state income tax deductions in most states.

If you live in a state that offers a tax deduction on contributions, such as Arizona, then the 529 Plan account is a great option if you can stomach having the money go into a state run fund. On the other hand, if you live in a state with zero income tax (e.g. Texas or Florida) or if you live in state with zero 529 Plan deductions (e.g. California) then you might as well use a Coverdell account because you’re not trading any tax deductions for investment options. For those who can’t make up their mind and who have the funds, consider doing both. There is no restriction against doing a Coverdell account (no tax deductions, but investment options) and a 529 Plan account (possible state tax deductions but no investment options).

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