Many of your have heard of the popular 529 savings plans that custodians can set up to fund their child or grandchild’s college education. Earlier this year, you likely also heard about the SECURE 2.0 Act which brought down some of the biggest changes to retirement and savings plans in recent years. But what does college planning have to do with retirement planning and how could the new legislation make 529s even more attractive than they were before?
Understanding the SECURE Act 2.0 and 529s
For those unfamiliar with the jargon, let’s get the basics out of the way. The SECURE Act 2.0, or the “Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement” Act, is legislation that primarily aims to help individuals increase and protect their retirement savings. But hidden within this big retirement package are some intriguing updates to 529 college savings plans.
A 529 plan, in simple words, is a tax-advantaged savings plan designed to encourage saving for future education costs. Typically, these plans allow families to invest after-tax dollars that grow tax-free. And, when the time comes, withdrawals for qualified education expenses are also tax-free.
Breaking Down the Benefits of SECURE 2.0 to 529s
But what does the SECURE Act 2.0 have to do with these 529s, you ask? Well, it broadens the definition of “qualified education expenses” and enhances the flexibility of these plans.
Thanks to SECURE 2.0, 529s now cover costs related to apprenticeships, and — here’s the big kicker — student loan repayments. Yes, you heard it right! You can now use the 529 plan to repay up to $10,000 in student loans. This new feature alone could make 529s far more appealing to many families.
Additionally, under SECURE 2.0, if your child gets a scholarship, you can now withdraw the amount of the scholarship without the usual 10% penalty. That means more flexibility to adapt to life’s surprises.
Balancing the Pros and Cons of 529 Plans
Now, does this make 529s more attractive? It’s not a simple “yes” or “no.” While these changes certainly sweeten the deal, they don’t fundamentally alter the nature of 529s.
529s remain an investment tool best suited for those quite certain about their children’s path to higher education. If your family’s situation matches this description, the expanded benefits under the SECURE 2.0 Act could indeed make the 529 plan more attractive.
However, if there’s considerable uncertainty about your child’s educational future, or if your family might not be able to take advantage of the new benefits (like the ability to pay off student loans), the enhanced 529 might not seem much more attractive than before.
The Risk? The Tax Costs of Overfunding a 529
The reason that we say 529s are an investment tool best suited for those “quite certain about their children’s path to higher education” is because a new J.P. Morgan study found that a 529 account is still the most tax-efficient way to save for a student’s education—but only if that account is actually used and depleted by the time the student completes their education.
That’s because removing the funds from the 529 for non-qualified expenses triggers a tax event. If the beneficiary does not go to school or does not finish school, the custodian has two choices:
- Take back the money in the 529 account or give it to the student. However, in both cases, taxes and a 10% penalty must be paid on the earnings at the recipient’s ordinary income tax rate. If the student is in a lower tax bracket, it makes most sense for the student to receive the funds and pay taxes at the lower ordinary income rate.
- Pass the account on to a lower generation (e.g., grandchildren). But there would be a tax liability for this option as well. The initial beneficiary might have to use some of the $12.92 million gift tax exclusion when a new beneficiary is named.
In other words, if you aren’t sure your child will attend college or may not complete a full four years, you’ll want to look at other options to avoid these tax implications. Other options include a pay-as-you-go approach, funding UTMA accounts, or setting up grantor trusts.
Choosing the Most Impactful Path
The SECURE 2.0 Act has brought some considerable enhancements to the 529 college savings plans, making them potentially more attractive to many families. However, whether these changes tip the scales in favor of a 529 plan for you and your family will largely depend on your specific situation and needs. A 529 account is the most tax-efficient education savings alternative, but only if the account is exhausted when the student’s education is completed.
As always, remember that financial planning is a personal journey. It’s essential to consult with a professional advisor who understands your financial goals and circumstances. If you’d like to discuss these changes and see how they impact your current financial strategy, don’t hesitate to get in touch!
At Platt Wealth Management, our team of financial advisors are ready to understand your goals and dreams in order to present the right solutions to your needs and opportunities that will simplify your financial life. We would love to learn more about you with a complimentary Discovery Call. Contact us today to discuss your opportunities.
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