5 things you may not know about 529 college savings plans

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529 plans can help you start planning early for college costs
These benefits could help you manage your family's education costs.
From the Merrill Edge Minute e-newsletter.

Key points

  • Funds saved in a 529 plan can be used to help pay for expenses at a college or other accredited post-secondary school that participates in federal financial aid programs
  • When it comes to applying for college financial aid, 529 plan assets receive favorable treatment
  • If a student receives a scholarship, the amount of the award can be withdrawn from a 529 plan without a 10% additional federal tax on earnings
  • Use the College Planning Calculator to estimate your student's college costs
Since they first became available in 1996, Section 529 college savings plans have experienced steady growth — becoming the go-to solution for many parents and grandparents when it comes to saving for their kids' and grandkids' college education. There are several well-known reasons for their popularity, including their tax advantages and their ability to cover more than one family member's educational costs. While earnings in these accounts can grow tax-free, withdrawals — including any earnings — are free from federal and, and in most cases, state income taxes, as long as the money is used toward qualified higher education expenses.Footnote 1
But there are several lesser-known benefits as well that make them worth considering as you think about saving for college. Take a look at the following five advantages of 529s.

1. 529 plan assets won't disqualify your child from financial aid

"Often, people mistakenly believe that because a 529 plan account is earmarked for higher education, it will have a negative impact on financial aid eligibility," says Richard Polimeni, director, education savings programs, Merrill Lynch. "In fact, a 529 plan is treated more favorably in the federal financial aid formula than savings in a child's name through a custodial account, such as a UTMA/UGMA," which are commonly used accounts for minors that are named after the acts that established them: The Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) and The Uniform Transfer to Minors Act. That's because assets in a child's 529 are owned by a parent, not the child. When calculating how much the family is expected to contribute, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) specifies that assets belonging to parents are tapped at a lower rate than those held in a child's name.
According to the College Savings Plans Network, for each year that a child is in college, parents are expected to contribute about 5.6% of the assets saved in a 529 account. By contrast, 20% of the money in a custodial account, which belongs to the child, must be counted toward the family's annual college contribution.Footnote 2

2. If your child gets a scholarship, you can repurpose some or all of the 529 plan funds

Your straight-A student or basketball star may give you an unexpected gift by earning a "full ride" or substantial scholarship toward college. In those cases, you can withdraw an amount equal to the scholarship from the 529 plan without incurring the 10% additional federal tax normally required on withdrawals that are not going to higher-education costs. Instead, you pay ordinary income taxes on any earnings on the amount returned to you. Consider using that money to help you meet other financial goals, such as saving for retirement.
You can also give those unneeded 529 plan assets to another relative to use for college. It's as simple as changing the name of the account's beneficiary to someone in that person's family — for example, one of your other children or even a first cousin.Footnote 3

3. You can use a 529 plan to fund your own continuing education

Anyone aged 18 or older with a Social Security number who resides in the United States can open and fund a 529 plan. And it can be used at any accredited post-secondary institution, including technical and vocational schools. It can be a great way to start saving for further training for your current career or a new one you are considering.

4. Investing in a state-sponsored plan can bring you additional tax advantages

Nearly every state sponsors its own 529 plan to pay costs at accredited schools in any state. Many offer deductions on state income tax to residents contributing to their home state's plan. "It's important to consider any benefits available in your home state," says Polimeni, "but you need to evaluate the particular 529 plans like you would any other investment. Look at the plan's investment manager, investment choices, plan performance and underlying fees and expenses before you invest."
Each year you can contribute $14,000 ($28,000 for married couples) to a 529 plan for each beneficiary without triggering federal gift taxes or exhausting your lifetime estate- and gift-tax exemption of $5.49 million per individual tax payer ($10.98 million for married couples). While contributions to 529 plans aren't deductible on your federal tax return, your investments have the opportunity to grow tax-deferred, and distributions that go to the beneficiary's college costs are free from federal taxes, so long as withdrawals are used for qualified higher-education expenses.Footnote 1

You need to evaluate the particular 529 plans like you would any other investment.

— Richard Polimeni,
director, education savings programs, Merrill Lynch

5. You can transfer wealth with a 529 plan

Contributing to a 529 plan also can help grandparents or others reduce the size of their taxable estates. It's even possible to accelerate your gifting timetable by contributing five years' worth of 529 plan contributions per beneficiary — as much as $140,000 for couples or $70,000 for individuals — into one year by using the annual gift exemption. Keep in mind that within the five-year period, you won't be able to make additional gifts to the beneficiary.Footnote 4
Next steps

Footnote 1 To be eligible for favorable tax treatment afforded to any earnings portion of withdrawals from Section 529 accounts, such withdrawals must be used for "qualified higher education expenses," as defined in the Internal Revenue Code. Any earnings withdrawn that are not used for such expenses are subject to federal income tax and may be subject to a 10% additional federal tax, as well as applicable state and local income taxes.

Footnote 2 Financial aid rules may change, and the rules in effect at the time the beneficiary applies may be different. For more complete information, visit the U.S. Department of Education website at www.ed.gov. The College Savings Plans Network is an affiliate to the National Association of State Treasurers and serves as a clearinghouse for information among state-administered college savings programs. http://www.collegesavings.org/commonQuestions.aspx#schoolAdmission FinancialAid

Footnote 3 The account owner can change the beneficiary to another member of the family of the original beneficiary without penalty. Please refer to the Internal Revenue Code definition of "member of the family." If assets are contributed from an UTMA/UGMA account, the custodian may not change the designated minor, except as permitted by applicable law.

Footnote 4 For 2017, individuals can gift up to $70,000 ($140,000 for married couples filing jointly) per beneficiary in a single year without incurring gift tax. Contributions between $14,000 and $70,000 ($28,000 and $140,000 for married couples filing jointly) made in one year can be prorated over a five-year period without subjecting you to gift tax or reducing your federal unified estate and gift tax credit. If you contribute less than the $70,000 ($140,000 for married couples filing jointly) maximum, additional contributions can be made without you being subject to federal gift tax, up to a prorated level of $14,000 ($28,000 for married couples filing jointly) per year. Gift taxation may result if a contribution exceeds the available annual gift tax exclusion amount remaining for a given beneficiary in the year of contribution. For contributions between $14,000 and $70,000 ($28,000 and $140,000 for married couples filing jointly) made in one year, if the account owner dies before the end of the five-year period, a prorated portion of the contribution may be included in his or her estate for estate tax purposes.

NOTE: Certain states may offer tax or other benefits for investing in their Section 529 plan. Some states may reduce or eliminate those benefits for investments in Section 529 plans administered by a state other than your home state or your beneficiary's home state. It is important to carefully consider any benefits available in your home state (or the home state of your designated beneficiary), along with a plan's investment manager, investment options, plan performance and underlying fees and expenses prior to investing. Certain states also may require the recapture of all or part of previously claimed tax benefits if the proceeds are not used for qualified higher education expenses (as defined by the federal tax law) or if the assets are transferred to another state's Section 529 plan.

Please remember there's always the potential of losing money when you invest in securities.

Neither Merrill Lynch nor any of its affiliates or financial advisors provide legal, tax or accounting advice. You should consult your legal and/or tax advisors before making any financial decisions.

Before you invest in a Section 529 plan, request the plan's official statement and read it carefully. The official statement contains more complete information, including investment objectives, charges, expenses and risks of investing in the 529 plan, which you should consider carefully before investing. You should also consider whether your home state or your designated beneficiary's home state offers any state tax or other state benefits such as financial aid, scholarship funds and protection against creditors that are available only for investments in such state's 529 plan. Section 529 plans are not guaranteed by any state or federal agency.