Give the Gift of Education: College 529 Plans

The holidays are upon us. I’ve always thought Christmas was mostly about the kids. There is nothing better than seeing a little face light up at the decorations or the absolute glee in your child when she receives that one thing she wanted most of all. But all the gifts can get out of hand.

With grandparents and aunts and uncles all giving to your children, your kids could be on overload before breakfast Christmas morning. If your kids’ eyes are glazed over before they’re done opening all their presents, consider a different tactic that can cut down on the volume of gifts and help with your children’s future. Ask your relatives to make a contribution to a College 529 plan instead of buying the usual gifts that may be forgotten in a corner before long.

A College 529 plan is a tax advantaged savings program for post high school educational expenses. Investment earnings grow tax free and withdrawals for educational purposes are tax exempt.

An AARP survey found that 36 percent of grandparents believe it is their job to spoil their grandchildren by buying them lots of stuff, mostly at the holidays. Of grandparents surveyed, 25 percent will spend more than $1,000 in a year on their grandchildren, and 40 percent will spend more than $500.

Those amounts can add up to substantial college savings by the time your children are ready for school. If your children were to receive a total of $500 in gifts each holiday season from their relatives beginning when they are babies, a 529 plan could grow to well over $14,000 by the time they are 18, assuming a 5.0 percent annual return. Smaller amounts also help. Some 529 plans accept deposits on existing accounts as low as $15.

The gift giver benefits as well. Contributions to a 529 plan in 34 states are state tax deductible, and in two thirds of those states, you don’t need to be the owner of the account to get the deduction. In Oregon, for example, a single person can deduct up to $2,300 of their contribution, and a married couple can deduct up to $4,600. If a larger gift is made, the extra over the deductible limit can be deducted in future years.

For the states where you do need to be the owner to get a deduction, the gifter would open their own account and simply name the child as the beneficiary. There is no limit to the number of accounts that can be opened for a single beneficiary.

For the 16 states that don’t offer a 529 plan, an account can be opened in any other state’s plan. While contributions are not deductible, the investment earnings will still grow tax free. There is no obligation to attend school in the state where the account is opened. Savings in 529 plans can be used for educational expenses at a wide variety of schools nationwide.

There are no limits to annual contributions for 529 plans. Gifts greater than $14,000, which is the gift tax exclusion amount, require the filing of a gift tax return. However that does not mean the gift will be taxable. It can remain tax exempt under the lifetime exclusion for estate taxes, currently at $5.49 million per individual for federal tax purposes. The maximum lifetime 529 plan contribution limit is $300,000

If your child doesn’t attend school, the money can continue to grow tax free in case they change their mind later. The money can remain in the plan as long as there is a living beneficiary, and you can change the beneficiary if school isn’t in the cards for the first one.

If the money is not used for educational purposes, you will pay income tax and a 10 percent penalty on the earnings. While that sounds terrible, if you’ve had the money invested for a while, chances are your earnings will have grown, and you will still come out ahead.

Instead of your parents buying gifts that won’t last or will be set aside to gather dust, have them invest in your child’s future. Toys wear out. Clothes are outgrown. Electronics become obsolete in no time. Most kids can only take so much unwrapping on Christmas. A College 529 plan contribution is a gift that will have a lasting impact, and have your child remembering Grandma and Grandpa’s gift all their life.

Image courtesy of rakratchada torsap at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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