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estate planning and elder law

Grandparents and 529 College Plans

How Much Money Can Be Gifted Tax-Free?
As the cost of college tuition skyrockets, parents and grandparents can take advantage of tax-efficient 529 plans and higher limits on gift and estate taxes.

Helping grandchildren prepare for long-term success and easing the financial burden of college costs is a gift for two generations. This recent article from Kiplinger provides some additional information you may not be aware of affecting grandparents and 529 college plans. Offered by Beck, Lenox and Stolzer Estate Planning and Elder Law, LLC, here is the article, “529 Plans: Give the Gift of Education (and Compounding).”

Giving cash directly to children or parents isn’t the best long-term strategy. Once the money is given, control is surrendered, and the gift may not be used as intended by the giver. Saving for college is one of the significant financial challenges parents face, especially considering the high inflation of college tuition costs. Between 2021 and 2022, U.S. college tuition rates increased by 12%.

This is where estate planning intersects with the new year. As the current historically high estate tax exemption ends at the end of 2025, managing the size of one’s estate becomes a higher priority. The structure of 529 college savings accounts can be used for tax efficiency and to control the eventual use of the gift while taking advantage of long-term compounding.

Current gift tax rules allow individuals to gift up to $18,000 per year per person. Therefore, a married couple could gift $36,000 to each child and grandchild without it counting against their lifetime exemption or requiring them to file a gift tax return. However, the 529 is even more advantageous, allowing a five-year front-loading of such gifts per recipient.

If your state has a plan, funding 529 plans offers deductions on state income taxes. If your state doesn’t have a 529 plan, you can open an account in another state but won’t receive the tax deduction.

There have always been concerns about overfunding a 529 account or having unused funds if the beneficiary decides not to attend college. Most plans allow account owners to change beneficiaries without any tax consequences as long as the new beneficiary is a member of the current beneficiary’s family. If the new beneficiary is younger than the prior one, it may be wise to change the asset allocation to reflect the new time horizon.

Another common question regards the impact gifting may have on the student’s application for federal aid. While 529 plans owned by parents are considered, 529 plans owned by grandparents are not on the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form.

Changes to the original 529 structure have rendered these accounts even more valuable. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act expanded the eligibility of 529 accounts for private and parochial K-12 schools. Then, the SECURE Act allowed 529 funds to be used to pay down up to $10,000 in student debt.

Starting in 2024, the SECURE 2.0 Act allows 529 funds to be rolled over into a Roth IRA at the annual contribution limit up to a lifetime maximum of $35,000 for a beneficiary. The account needs to be open for at least 15 years. Still, having an account grow in a tax-free environment and removing the distribution restrictions presents a valuable new investment tool.

Speak with your financial advisor or estate planning attorney about how grandparents and 529 college plans can offer more to their grandchildren than just college funds. It is important to discuss how to incorporate the benefits of the 529 account into your estate plan in order to help family members achieve educational goals and plan for estate taxes. Click here for a free phone consultation with a Beck, Lenox and Stolzer attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 20, 2023) “529 Plans: Give the Gift of Education (and Compounding)”

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