Summer is great time to think about college and to make financial plans for your kids. Better yet, let them make money over the summer and put it in a tax-favorable college savings account. As you consider their plan options, 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.
- $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 less than $190k (married joint) or $110,000 (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) so you can always get around the income limitation by having the child contribute themselves.
- 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.
- 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- Contributions grow tax-free and can be withdrawn for education expenses until the account beneficiary reaches age 30.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.
- 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- Amounts can be withdrawn for tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, special needs, room and board.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.
- 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 but do the Coverdell first. 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).
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.
How does the proposed Republican tax reform impact your retirement account? Well, if you save for education expenses for your kids or grand-kids using a Coverdell Education Savings Account, you’re not going to be happy as new contributions to Coverdell accounts are eliminated in the House Plan. Also, both House and Senate bills eliminate the ability to re-characterize Roth IRA conversions back to Traditional IRAs. This was a nice “do-over” the IRS allowed you to use if you regretted converting your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and switched it back to a traditional IRA within certain time limitations. For my prior article on how a Roth IRA re-characterization works, at least for now, check it out here.
The only good news: It could’ve been worse. There was talk of drastic changes that would have essentially called an end to Traditional IRA and 401(k) contributions in favor of Roth-only contributions (or limiting Traditional dollars to $2,400 annually). Luckily, those ideas never made it into the legislation.
Here’s a brief summary of the two major changes effecting IRAs. In addition to the changes effecting IRAs, there are numerous proposals regarding employer retirement plans such as 401(k)s, but those changes only slightly alter the ways those plans function.
||Change to IRAs
||No More Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) Contributions
||Coverdell accounts are used as a vehicle to contribute funds (up to $2k annually per beneficiary) for education expenses. It is usually used by parents or grandparents as an account to invest the money tax-free whereby the money in the account grows without being subject to tax and comes out tax-free for the beneficiary’s education expenses. There is no deduction for the contribution. The current proposal would eliminate the ability to make future Coverdell contributions. Existing accounts may still exist without new contributions or may be rolled to a 529.
|House Bill & Senate Amendment to Senate Bill
||End Roth IRA Re-characterizations
||Under current rules, you can convert your traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, and if you later decide that such conversions (and tax due) wasn’t a good idea, you are allowed to undo the conversion and go back to a Traditional IRA.
So what should you do now? If you’ve used Coverdell accounts or wanted to, make 2017 Coverdell contributions because they may be the last time you can do them. Also, if you’ve been thinking of converting a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, 2017 may be the last year you can do so, and still have the ability to re-characterize back to Traditional if you later decide against it.
Do 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.
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.