With outstanding student loans now exceeding one trillion dollars1, there’s a big emphasis on what can be done to relieve families of the burden of student loan debt. However, some families face another problem – they saved too much money in a 529 college savings plan. That’s right — it’s actually possible to save more money than is needed to pay for college education expenses. And it’s more common than you might think. For example, if you saved for four years of private schooling in a 529, and your child decides to go to a community college for a couple years and then transfer to a state school, you’ll end up with remaining funds in your account.
So why is this a problem? Because there are tax consequences if 529 funds are used to pay for anything other than qualified education expenses. Specifically, the earnings portion of a 529 account is subject to taxation as ordinary income and a 10 percent penalty if money is used for non-education related expenses. However, withdrawals of principal won’t be taxed or penalized because contributions were made with after-tax dollars.
Granted, this is a good “problem” to have for many people — it’s certainly much better than racking up tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt. But what are your alternatives if your son or daughter has finished college (or decided not to attend college) and there’s money left over in your 529 plan?
Here are 5 options to consider:
1. Keep the money in the account to pay for grad school later.
Leaving the remaining funds in your 529 is one option. Many young adults decide to pursue advanced education after obtaining a four-year undergraduate degree. There’s no timeline dictating when 529 funds have to be withdrawn, so if there’s a chance your son or daughter might want to go to graduate school later, you can just leave excess 529 funds alone.
As an added benefit, the money may continue to grow on a tax-deferred basis as long as it remains in the account.
2. Change the beneficiary.
529 plans offer a lot of flexibility in terms of beneficiary designations. So, if you have more than one child and there’s leftover money in your oldest child’s 529 when he or she graduates, you can simply change the beneficiary designation to your younger child. This could enable you to contribute less money to your younger child’s account and reallocate some of these funds to retirement savings instead.
Similarly, you could change the beneficiary to a member of your extended family, such as a niece or nephew. You could even change the beneficiary to yourself and use the money to go back to school and get a graduate degree or attend a vocational-technical school if you want.
3. Save the money for grandchildren.
Since there isn’t a deadline requiring you to withdraw 529 funds by a certain date, you can leave the money in the account for your children’s children. You would simply designate a grandchild as the new beneficiary once he or she is born. This is a great way to get an early start on college savings for your grandkids, which your children will no doubt greatly appreciate.
4. Look into penalty-free non-qualified withdrawal options.
There are several scenarios in which you can make non-qualified 529 plan withdrawals and avoid paying the 10 percent penalty. These include the death or disability of the beneficiary and the decision by the beneficiary to attend a U.S. military academy. Also, if your child receives one or more scholarships, you can withdraw up to the scholarship award amount and use the money for non-education related expenses without paying the 10 percent penalty.
Keep in mind that while you won’t have to pay the tax penalty in these situations, you will still have to pay tax on earnings in the account at your ordinary income tax rate.
5. Use the money to pay for private K-12 education expenses.
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a beneficial provision for families saving money in 529 plans by allowing these funds to be used to pay for private secondary school education expenses. So if there’s leftover money in your older child’s 529 when he or she graduates, you can use it to send your younger child or children to a private elementary, middle or high school.
If none of these strategies work for you, your last option may be to simply withdraw the money and pay the income taxes and penalty that are due. Remember that taxes and penalties are only assessed on your earnings, so the tax bite might not be as drastic as you think.
Consider speaking with a financial planner about the best strategy for your family’s situation if you have an overfunded 529 account.