Q: "My wife and I will soon be first-time grandparents and would like to make monthly investments for our grandson. What are the benefits and limitations of 529 plans? We live in N.Y., but our grandson will be born in Massachusetts." —Joe Kostka, Fairport, N.Y.
A: If you want to help with your grandchild’s college costs, a 529 plan is the best route, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college.
These state college savings plans have significant tax advantages. Your contributions grow tax-deferred, and withdrawals are tax free as long as the money goes toward qualified higher education expenses such as tuition or books. (If you spend it on something else, you will be hit by both income taxes and a 10% penalty.)
Since you're funding an education account, you can contribute even more than the annual gift tax exclusion—$14,000 in 2014, or $28,000 as a couple—without running the risk of owing gift taxes. You can gift five times the annual exclusion in a single year, or $70,000 for a single person and $140,000 for a couple (but you then can't give that child more for the next four years).
In more than half of states, if you use your state’s 529 plan you can deduct at least a portion of your 529 contribution on your state income tax return. New York offers a deduction of up to $5,000 per year ($10,000 for married couples filing jointly). Massachusetts has no deduction. To find out which states offer tax benefits, check out Edvisors’ full list.
For you to get a tax break in New York, you need to be the account holder of the 529 plan (naming your grandchild as beneficiary). But you might want to forgo the deduction and make the parents the account holder (or the child, though custodial 529 plans have other drawbacks, including no option to later change the beneficiary).
When grandparents own 529 plans, the account is not reported as an asset on the student’s FAFSA application for financial aid, but any plan distributions count as income. This can reduce your grandchild’s aid eligibility by as much as half of the distribution amount.
If the parent or child owns the plan, the account is reported as a parental asset on the FAFSA and has a minimal impact on aid eligibility, says Kantrowitz (aid is reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the 529). And 529 distributions are not reported as income.
The savings from the state tax deduction are small compared to the harm it could cause to your grandchild's financial aid, says Kantrowitz.
Other Ways to Stay In Control
To keep control of the account without jeopardizing future financial aid, you have a few options. You can retain ownership of the plan until right before your grandchild takes a distribution and then switch it to your children. While New York allows this kind of account change (not all states do), you risk having to pay back the your tax savings (talk to an accountant).
Another option to minimize the hit to financial aid while still getting the tax break: Wait to take out the money until the child’s senior year of college, after the last financial aid application has been filed. The only risk is that if their expenses don't outweigh what's in the account, you could be stuck with leftover funds.
Best Plan Options
While you can invest in any state’s 529 college savings plan, you should opt for a direct-sold 529 plan, which usually has much lower fees than adviser-sold 529 plans do.
“The best option is to focus on a 529 plan with low fees that has an age-based asset allocation that mixes an all-stock fund, such as a S&P 500 fund, with a fund that has no risk of loss to principal,” says Kantrowitz, who prefers plans run by Vanguard, Fidelity, or TIAA-CREF. New York's plan is run by Vanguard, while the Massachusetts direct 529 is run by Fidelity.
To help you boost what's in the 529, Kantrowitz also suggests joining a program like Upromise. You earn rebates on everyday purchases, which are automatically put into the 529 plan you specify. Kantrowitz says a family will typically earn between $1,000 to $2,000 in rebates over the lifetime of the account.