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GOP Tax Reform and Retirement Accounts

Its official: We have tax reform. But, how does it affect your IRAs, 401(k)s, 529s, Coverdells, and other retirement and education savings accounts? Let’s break down what’s new, what was proposed and didn’t make it, and what stays the same.

New Changes for 2018

There are two major changes effecting retirement, health, and education savings accounts in the bill:

1. Roth re-characterizations are dead.

Account holders will no longer be able to conduct what is known as a Roth re-characterization. A Roth re-characterization occurs when you convert from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and then later decide that you would like to go back. This helped those who couldn’t pay the tax on the conversion, or those who saw their account value go down after the conversion as they were able to undo the conversion, wait a period of time, and then reconvert and alter tax years at a lower value. The strategy will still be allowed for those who converted in 2017 and want to undo in 2018, but is unavailable after that. For my prior article outlining how the Roth re-characterization works please refer to my article here.

2. 529s can be used for K-12 private school.

College savings plans known as 529s have been expanded, and can now be used for K-12 expenses up to $10,000 per year. 529 plans remain unchanged as to college expenses, and the $10,000 cap only applies to K-12. Although you do not get a deduction for 529 plan contributions, 529 plans allow for tax-free growth and the funds can be used for education expenses. For a summary of 529 plans, and the differences between 529s and Coverdell ESAs (aka Coverdell IRAs) please refer to my prior article here.

What Was Proposed and Didn’t Make It in the Final Bill

There were a number of proposals that were part of one bill, but were removed before passing through Congress and getting signed by President Trump. These proposals include:

1. Ending Coverdell ESAs (aka Coverdell IRAs).

This proposal was part of the House bill – not included in the Senate bill – and, in the end, changes to Coverdell accounts were removed from the final bill. This is good news as Coverdell ESAs have been used by many as a means to save for their kids’ or grandchildrens’ college expenses. Similar to a 529, there is no tax deduction on contributions, but the funds grow tax-free and are used for college education expenses. The nice thing about a Coverdell, as opposed to a 529, is that you can decide what to invest the account into whether they are stocks, real estate, private companies (LLCs, LPs), or cryptocurrency.

2. Restrict deductible traditional retirement plan contributions.

There were proposals to restrict deductible traditional retirement plan contributions and to force the majority of 401(k) or other employer plan contributions to be Roth. The goal: Raise revenue now. Thankfully, these proposals never made it into the House nor Senate bills.

There were some minor hardship distribution changes for employer plans but other that the items outlined above, Tax Reform was neutral on retirement plans and savings for Americans and sometimes that’s the best you can hope for.

Penalty-Free Early IRA Distributions for College Education Expenses

Students walking across the campus of Duke UniversityDo you have tuition or other college expenses due for yourself, your spouse, or your child? Would you like to use your IRA to pay for these expenses? Would you like to avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty for accessing your IRA funds before you are age 59 ½? This article outlines how you can avoid the 10% early withdrawal penalty when using your IRA to pay for higher education expenses.

Whether you should actually take a distribution from your IRA to pay for the higher education expenses of your child is another topic. Sadly, too many parents have raided their own retirement savings to pay for their children’s college education expenses. They then reach retirement age with a sliver of what savings or retirement accounts they could’ve otherwise relied on. Everyone’s situation and goals are unique but if you have decided to use IRA funds to help pay for educational expenses here’s how you can avoid the 10% penalty for accessing your own money.

10% Penalty Exception Rules for Higher Education Expenses

Here’s a quick breakdown on how the 10% withdrawal penalty can be avoided when you use IRA funds to pay for qualifying higher education expenses.

1. Who can the IRA money be used for?

 Your IRA funds may be used for qualifying higher education expenses of the IRA owner, their spouse, children, and their descendants.

2. What schools qualify?

Any school eligible to participate in federal student aid programs qualifies. This would include public and private colleges as well as vocational schools. Any school where you, your spouse, or your child completed a FAFSA application will qualify.

3. What expenses qualify?

There is a broad list of qualifying expenses. These include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment. Also, room and board is included if the student is enrolled at least halftime.

4. How much is exempt?

The amount of your distribution that is exempt from tax is computed in three steps. First, determine the total qualifying expenses (tuition, fees, books, room and board, etc.) Second, reduce the qualifying expenses by any tax-free education expenses. These include Coverdell IRA distributions, federal grants (e.g. Pell grants), and any veterans or employer assistance received. Third, subtract and tax-free education assistance from the total qualifying expenses incurred and this gives you the total qualifying amount that you may take an early withdrawal from your IRA and avoid the 10% penalty.

Example

Here’s a quick example to illustrate theses rules: You’re age 53 and have an IRA you’d like to access to help cover your daughter’s education expenses. Your daughter Jane is attending Harrison University, a private college that participates in federal student aid programs.

Her expenses for the year are as follows:

  • Tuition: $22,000
  • Room and Board: $13,000
  • Books: $1,000
  • Supplies: $500
  • Equipment: $500
  • Total Qualifying Expenses: $37,000

Jane received the following aid:

  • Federal Grant: $2,400
  • Coverdell IRA Payment: $5,000
  • Federal Student Loan: $10,500 (loans do not reduce the qualifying expenses)
  • Total Tax-Free Assistance: $7,400
  • Total Amount Eligible for a Penalty-Free 10% Early Withdrawal: $29,600

You decide to take a $10,000 withdrawal from your IRA. Since the total amount eligible is $29,600, the entire distribution will be penalty-free. Keep in mind that while the $10,000 distribution is penalty-free it is still included into the taxable income of the IRA owner.

For more details on the 10% early withdrawal exception for higher education expenses, refer to IRS Publication 970. Also, the above example presumes the IRA owner has a traditional IRA. If the IRA owner has a Roth IRA, there are different considerations and distribution rules.