Saving for College Education? Trusts, 529 Accounts or Both?

You have options, when it comes to saving for those tuition bills.

What is the best way for one generation to save for the next generation to be funded for a college education? There are a number of ways to accomplish it, according to Penta in the article “There’s A Better Way to Fund a College Education.”

In the article, the matriarch of a New England family decided to give up the tax benefits of 529 College Savings Accounts and go with a trust. However, the the best method depends on the family and the circumstances.

The reason the matriarch made the trust decision was to have more flexibility. The 529 account limits how much can be invested, where the money can be invested and how the assets must be used. A trust provides far more options.

However, these two options—the 529 and the trust—can be used in a combination that offers the best of both worlds. Let’s look at them both.

The 529 plan is great for tax-deferred asset growth. Funds can be taken out tax-free, as long as they are used for qualified educational expenses. As a result of changes to the law from the recent tax reform, you can use 529 funds for qualified educational expenses for elementary, middle, and high school tuition. For families sending their kids to private schools, this was a great change.

Investment options for 529 accounts are mutual funds or pre-designed portfolios that become more conservative, as the beneficiary gets closer to attending college. Investment caps are generally about $300,000 for the entire life of the plan, as opposed to annually.

If the funds are used for expenses that are not qualified, like buying a car for a student who will be living off campus and needs a car to get to and from school, there will be a 10% penalty on earnings and taxes to be paid.

A trust offers far more flexibility for all concerned. If the money is not completely used for education, the trustees might wish to give the child money for a down payment on a home, or to start up a business. The rules are set by the person creating the trust. You can even require the student to maintain a certain grade point average. The owner of the trust also determines who will pay taxes on the appreciated assets in the trust—the owner of the trust, the trust itself, or the beneficiaries.

Another tactic is to use the annual gift-tax exclusion to fund a 529 plan and put the balance of the money dedicated to a child’s college fund into a trust.

An estate planning attorney can advise you on creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances and may include funding a college education.

Reference: Penta (September 2018) “There’s A Better Way to Fund a College Education”