Facts & Fictions
As college costs continue to increase faster than the rate of inflation1, even wealthy families need to plan and save for college. There may be no better savings vehicle for this than a 529 college savings plan. The plan is designed to combine tax advantages with high contribution limits and control over how money is invested and spent.1
Yet, perhaps because 529 plans can seem too good to be true, numerous myths perpetuate about these college savings plans. Here, we address the most common misunderstandings to help you distinguish fact from fiction.
FICTION: A 529 plan has income restrictions.
FACT: Unlike some other college savings accounts like the Coverdell Education Savings Account, there are no income limitations for investing in a 529 plan. Generally, only individuals (including the beneficiary) whose modified adjusted gross income for the year is less than $110,000 ($220,000 in the case of a joint return) can contribute to a Coverdell Education Savings Account.2 In contrast, higher net-worth investors can receive all the federal tax benefits of investing in a 529 plan. Also, the higher the tax bracket, the more money is saved in taxes on tax-free qualified withdrawals.3
FICTION: Investment options are limited in a 529.
FACT: The SSGA Upromise 529 Plan offers four investment choices. With the College Date Portfolios, you simply select the year you expect the student (the account beneficiary) to start college. These portfolios adjust automatically from more aggressive to more conservative as the student gets closer to college-age (and closer to the selected college date year). On the other end of the decision-making spectrum, customization through Static Portfolios is possible by building your own portfolio using fifteen precise investment options, across investment styles and asset classes, each invested in a single underlying SPDR ETF. The SSGA Upromise 529 Plan also offers three Risk-Based Portfolios and a Savings Portfolio as a Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)-insured option. College Date and Risk-Based Portfolios offer built in tactical asset allocation and broad diversification. To learn more visit: ssga.upromise529.com/investmentoptions.
FICTION: A 529 plan has low contribution limits.
FACT: Up to $370,000 can be invested in an SSGA Upromise 529 Plan account per beneficiary.4 In contrast, the Coverdell Education Savings Account limits contributions to just $2,000 a year. Note, too, that anyone can contribute up to $14,000 a year ($28,000 if married) per beneficiary to a 529 plan account without triggering a federal gift tax. Moreover, a special federal gift tax exemption for 529 plans permits contributions of up to $70,000 in one calendar year ($140,000 if married and electing to split gifts) per beneficiary to be treated as if the contribution was made over a five year period for gift tax purposes.5
FICTION: Only a parent can open a 529 account.
FACT: Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends can open a 529 account for a beneficiary. Of course, some families prefer to open the account themselves and invite friends and family to make contributions. In fact, Ugift® is an easy way for friends and family to contribute to a 529 with no fees. Gift contributions can be made online or by check, so there's no extra paperwork for you. (Adults also can open a 529 account and name themselves as the beneficiary to fund their own education.)
FICTION: It's difficult to open a 529 plan account.
FACT: It is not as cumbersome as you might think. Everything you need to open a SSGA Upromise 529 Plan account is available easily online at ssga.upromise529.com/enroll.
The first 529 account you open will be a paper process. However, from there, you can open subsequent SSGA Upromise 529 Plan accounts through our web-based portal 529quickview.com in just ten minutes. And our 529 QuickView® tool facilitates easy ongoing account management for you and your clients.
FICTION: It's too late to start a 529 plan for a high school student.
FACT: 529 plans have no age limits, so it's never too late to open an account. Investment options range from conservative to aggressive, so you can select or create a portfolio that's appropriate for older students. Even if the account is held for just a handful of years, the 529 plan's tax-deferred growth and tax-free7 distributions for qualified higher education expenses can mean more money to pay for college. In fact, even adults planning to return to school can benefit from saving in a 529 plan.
FICTION: You can't change the investment options in a 529.
FACT: Investments across accounts within a 529 plan can be changed up to two times per calendar year and upon a change in the beneficiary. Also note that the account owner can change the beneficiary any time to another eligible "member of the family" (as defined under the US Internal Revenue Code).
FICTION: 529 savings can only be used to pay for tuition.
FACT: In addition to tuition, assets in a 529 plan account can cover a variety of qualified higher education expenses including fees, certain room and board costs, required equipment and supplies, as well as certain qualified expenses for special-needs students. On February 25, 2015, The US House of Representatives passed bill H.R. 529 by a 401-20 vote to expand the qualified expenses for 529 plans to include computer equipment, software, or internet access expenses used for college. The bill also would allow the re-depositing of funds to a 529 plan without penalty if the student withdraws from college. It is undetermined at this point when and if the bill will be become law as it is still going through the legislative process and will need to be further approved by the Senate followed by the President.8
FICTION: 529 savings can only be used at schools in the state offering the Plan.
FACT: Not true. The full value of a SSGA Upromise 529 Plan account can be used at an eligible educational institution including public or private 4-year colleges and universities, eligible trade and technical schools, 2-year junior colleges, and graduate schools anywhere in the U.S. and abroad. Generally, an eligible educational institution is one that participates in U.S. Department of Education student financial aid programs.
FICTION: A trust is a better way for grandparents to help fund college.
FACT: A 529 plan account can be a great alternative to an irrevocable trust with the student as the beneficiary. Again, using the special gift tax exemption by frontloading a 529 plan account with contributions up to $70,000 ($140,000 if married and electing to split gifts) per beneficiary in one calendar year can reduce a taxable estate quickly because the money gets out of your estate faster than if you made contributions each year. For example, grandparents who gift $140,000 to open a 529 account for each of their four grandchildren immediately reduce their estate by $560,000 without gift tax implications. They can repeat the same contributions every five years9.
Trusts can be more complicated and are generally less tax efficient than a 529. Income retained by a trust is taxed to the trust, while distributed income is taxed to the beneficiary.
529 plans also typically have lower administrative fees relative to the costs of establishing and administering a trust. If held in the grandparent's name, a 529 plan account does not count as the student's asset when applying for federal financial aid, although distributions taken from a grandparent's account are generally reportable as student income.
FICTION: Saving in a 529 plan hurts eligibility for federal financial aid.
FACT: Financial aid is a broad term that covers non-need-based merit scholarships, lower interest rate federal loans, need-based grants from colleges, and work study. Some families also take out private loans. The bottom line is that not all financial aid is a "gift" and interest rates on loans can vary dramatically, based on whether they are government subsidized or private.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines need-based aid. FAFSA analysis treats a 529 plan account for a dependent student as a parental asset, assessed at a maximum of 5.6 percent when determining the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) towards college costs. Assets held in the student's name are assessed at 20 percent when calculating the EFC10. Also, qualified withdrawals from your 529 plan account do not add to your family's income, which in turn would reduce eligibility for financial aid the next year. Note that withdrawals from a 529 account opened by a grandparent or another non-parent do, indeed, count as student income. For that reason, many families that receive financial aid choose to reserve grandparent and other accounts for the final year of college when they would not be filing a FAFSA to qualify for financial aid for the following year.
FICTION: If the child doesn't go to college, the 529 account money is lost.
FACT: The person who owns the 529 account controls it. Meaning if the first beneficiary decides not to attend college, the account owner can change the beneficiary to another eligible "member of the family" (as defined under the US Internal Revenue Code) with no penalty. The 529 account can also be left in the first beneficiary's name or grandchildren's names, creating an education legacy as assets are passed down between generations11
FICTION: If the student receives a scholarship and doesn't need the money saved in the 529 plan account, the account owner is stuck paying a big penalty.
FACT: If the scholarship covers only tuition, you can take a distribution up to the amount of the scholarship from the 529 account to pay for expenses such as room and board, books and other required supplies. Any earnings would be taxable but would not be subject to the 10% federal penalty tax.
If additional savings remain unused in the 529 plan account, you can change the beneficiary of the account to an eligible "member of the family" of the current beneficiary (as defined under the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended) with no penalty. Alternatively, if you chose to take a non-qualified withdrawal of the account, earnings (but not contributions) would be taxed at the rate of the recipient of the distribution (i.e. the beneficiary's tax rate if you make the distribution payable to the beneficiary or your tax rate if the distribution is payable to you). These earnings would also be subject to the 10% federal tax penalty.
FICTION: All 529 plans are the same.
FACT: All 529 plans offer federal (and usually state) tax-free earnings, but there are other differences to consider such as fees, investments offered, investment philosophy, and age-based options. Favorable state taxes and other benefits offered under a particular 529 plan should also be taken into consideration. The SSGA Upromise 529 Plan is one of a few college savings plans powered by SPDR ETFs, utilizing low cost passive exchange traded funds.
FICTION: There's no real benefit to investing in a 529 plan with ETFs.
FACT: The breadth of ETFs enables you to build more diversified portfolios. Certain asset classes (small cap emerging markets, international TIPS, and international REITs) typically aren't available in a passive mutual fund. Portfolio managers of the SSGA Upromise 529 Plan use ETFs as a precision tool to create diversified global portfolios based on a tactical asset allocation investment process.
Additionally, with the range of fixed income ETFs, College Date Portfolios in the SSGA Upromise 529 Plan own core bonds, TIPS, high yield and short-term corporate bond ETFs. Bond exposures can be adjusted as interest rate forecasts change. While the duration of longer term College Date Portfolios is between two and five years, duration is less than 1.5 years in the 2018, 2015 and College Today portfolios, give potentially lower sensitivity to interest rate hikes.
FICTION: The 529 plan's income tax benefits will soon expire.
FACT: Given that 529 tax benefits are established under the US Internal Revenue Code, they are subject to being amended or eliminated through legislation. The good news is that 529 plans have received bipartisan support in Congress. Congress recognizes the benefits of helping families save for college and aims to strengthen college savings plans through legislation.
As of December 2017, 529 tax benefits can be applied towards private school tuition for grades K-12. This newly added benefit can be utilized for a maximum of $10,000 (per beneficiary) each year for private elementary or high schools.12
1 Source: https://trends.collegeboard.org/sites/default/files/2017-trends-in-college-pricing_1.pdf
3 Earnings on non-qualified withdrawals are subject to federal income tax and may be subject to a 10% federal penalty tax, as well as state and local income taxes. The availability of tax or other benefits may be contingent on meeting other requirements.
4 The maximum contribution limit applies to accounts for the same beneficiary under all 529 college savings programs sponsored by the State of Nevada.
5 In the event the donor does not survive the five year period, a pro-rated amount will revert to the donor's taxable estate.
6 Ugift is a registered service mark of Ascensus Broker Dealer Services, Inc.
7 Earnings on non-qualified withdrawals are subject to federal income tax and may be subject to a 10% federal tax penalty, as well as state and local income taxes. The availability of tax and other benefits may be contingent on meeting other requirements.
9 In the event the donor does not survive the five year period, a pro-rated amount will revert to the donor's taxable estate.
11 Rules regarding gifts and generation-skipping transfer tax may apply in the case of a change of beneficiary. You should consult with a tax advisor when considering a change of beneficiary.
12 Source: http://www.savingforcollege.com/articles/coming-soon-big-changes-to-529-plans