Year after year, you and your spouse have been saving for college through a 529 savings account. Now that divorce is pending, it’s time to think about spending the money you’ve put aside for your children as a co-parent. Who will be in control of how much is withdrawn and how it’ll be used? What are the rules? How do you put this in writing in a way that makes everyone feel secure about using these funds? How will you handle contributing to the account going forward? Use the following to learn how dividing 529 plans in divorce works and what steps to take going forward.
You can save up to $15,000 per parent in a 529 account or $30,000 total. Grandparents can also contribute up to $15,000 per person per year. Contributing more than $15,000 per person would need to be reported to the IRS as a gift. However, a 529 account can be “superfunded” with contributions of $75,000 per person or $150,000 per couple—which uses up your federal gift-tax exclusion for 5 years. So each parent and the grandparents can still contribute a considerable amount to the 529 accounts.
What can you use this money for? Which expenses trigger taxes and penalties? If you do things right, no penalties or federal income tax—and, in many states, no state income tax—will be due on your withdrawals. But learning by trial and error can be costly at tax time, and more importantly, your child could lose out on financial aid if you’re not careful. So learn the ins and outs ahead of time.
Here’s a guide to help you make your 529 savings go as far as possible.
Plan for tax-free withdrawals
Qualified withdrawals are federal income tax-free so long as the total withdrawals for the year don’t exceed your child’s adjusted qualified higher education expenses (QHEEs), discussed in #3 below. To calculate these, add up tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, any school-related special services, and computer costs, and then deduct any costs already covered by tax-free educational assistance. Examples include Pell grants, tax-free scholarships and fellowships, tuition discounts, the Veteran’s Educational Assistance Program and tax-free employer educational assistance programs.
You’ll also need to deduct costs used to claim or Lifetime Learning Credit. The basic rule: You can’t double up tax benefits for the same college expenses.
Know which expenses qualify
When you pay qualified education expenses from a 529 account, your withdrawals are tax- and penalty-free. As of 2019, qualified expenses include tuition expenses for elementary, middle, and high schools (private, public, or religious). Although the money may come from multiple 529 accounts, only $10,000 total can be spent each year per beneficiary on elementary, middle, or high school tuition.
Money saved in a 529 plan can also be used to pay qualified expenses associated with college or other postsecondary training institutions. Eligible schools include any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution eligible to participate in a student aid program administered by the US Department of Education.
While funds from a 529 account can be used to pay for expenses required for college, not all expenses qualify. Tuition and fees are considered required expenses and are allowed, but when it comes to room and board, the costs can’t exceed the greater of the following 2 amounts:
- The allowance for room and board included in the school’s cost of attendance for federal financial aid calculations
- The actual amount charged if the student is living in housing operated by the educational institution
In other words, if your child is planning to live off campus in housing not owned or operated by the college, you can’t claim expenses in excess of the school’s estimates for room and board for attendance there. So it’s important to confirm room and board costs with the school’s financial aid office in advance so you know what to expect. Also, keep in mind that in order for room and board to qualify, your child must be enrolled half time or more.
Textbooks count as an education expense, but only those included on the required reading for the course. Computers and related equipment and services are considered qualified expenses if they are used primarily by the beneficiary during any of the years that the beneficiary is enrolled at an eligible educational institution. Computer software for sports, games, or hobbies would be excluded unless the software is predominantly educational in nature.
It’s important to keep receipts and make sure that qualified items are purchased separately from nonqualified items. Be careful to avoid expenses that don’t qualify—for example, equipment used primarily for amusement or entertainment doesn’t qualify. These and other lifestyle expenses, like insurance, sports expenses, health club dues, and travel and transportation costs, will have to be funded through other resources. If you’re not sure whether a plan covers a particular college expense, the college’s financial aid office should be able to help.
Check with the school to find out exactly what’s required so you can avoid accidentally taking a nonqualified distribution. If you withdraw money for anything that doesn’t meet the qualified expense criteria, any part of the distribution that is made up of earnings on contributions will be taxed as ordinary income and could incur a 10% federal penalty. However, the penalty may be waived if there are extenuating circumstances, such as the disability or death of the beneficiary, or if the beneficiary receives a scholarship, veteran’s educational assistance, or other nontaxable education payment that isn’t a gift or inheritance.
If a distribution from a 529 plan is later refunded by an eligible educational institution, a recontribution can be made to the 529 plan. The recontribution must be made no more than 60 days after the date of the refund. The recontributed amount cannot exceed the amount of the refund.
Keep good records
Your 529 savings plan administrator will, in most cases, provide an annual statement that reports your contributions and earnings, including the amount you withdrew from the plan. But it’s you, not your program provider, who is responsible for accurately reporting to the IRS. If your withdrawals are equal to or less than your qualified higher education expenses (QHEEs), then your withdrawals including all your earnings are tax-free. If your withdrawals are higher than your QHEE, then taxes, and potentially a penalty, will be due on earnings that exceed your qualified expenses. For many people, keeping track is easy because large tuition bills use up most of their 529 savings. But if you are using your 529 plan for room and board expenses, it’s smart to keep those receipts.
When divorced, you’ll need to find a way to make sure the IRS receives the correct information. You’ll either need to work together with your spouse each year on what expenses each of you will turn into the IRS or you’ll want one only spouse to handle a particular child’s education costs and reporting needs.
Decide how to withdraw the funds
It’s important that withdrawals you take from your 529 savings account match the payment of qualifying expenses in the same tax year. Like some families, you may choose to pay the school directly from your 529 account for ease in recordkeeping and matching distributions to school expenses. In this situation, make sure you are aware of school payment deadlines and the time required to transfer funds from the 529 account to the school. It can take several days for investments to be sold out of your 529 account and mailed to the school and then a week or so for the payment to make it through the mail and then processed by the school.
Or you may choose to move money from your 529 account to your bank or brokerage account. Many colleges prefer payments to be made electronically through their website from a bank or brokerage account. You can choose to pay bills first and then reimburse yourself from the 529 account, or you can pull money from the 529 account and then use it to pay bills from your bank or brokerage account. This path also provides flexibility when paying smaller bills like those for books or off-campus room and board.
Keep in mind that you must submit your request for the cash within the same calendar year—not the same academic year—as you make the payment. If the timing is off, you risk owing tax because it’s considered a nonqualified withdrawal.
Prioritize which 529 accounts to spend from first
If your child has more than one 529 savings account, such as an additional account through a divorced co-parent or a grandparent, knowing which account to use first or how to take advantage of them concurrently could help. Don’t leave decisions to the last minute—instead, sit down with all plan owners and decide on a withdrawal strategy ahead of time to make sure the qualifying college costs are divvied up in the most beneficial way.
Also, if financial aid is in the picture, a distribution from a grandparent-owned 529 account may be considered income to the child on the next financial aid application, which could significantly affect aid. To avoid any problems, grandparents can take distributions from 529s as early as the spring of the student’s sophomore year—right after the last tax year on the student’s last undergraduate Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), assuming the student finishes college within 4 years. Wait until the following spring to employ this strategy if it looks like your child will take 5 years to graduate.
Money left over in your 529 plan?
With careful planning, you can avoid having money left over in your 529 account once your child graduates. But if funds remain, there are several options available. You can let the money sit in the account in anticipation of your child continuing on to graduate school or another post-secondary institution. If so, you’ll want to rethink your investment strategy depending on how soon the funds will be needed so you can take full advantage of the potential for growth over time.
You also have the ability to change beneficiaries without incurring tax consequences. Here are 2 different options for maintaining your tax advantage and avoiding any penalty:
- Change the designated beneficiary to another member of the original beneficiary’s family. IRS Publication 970 has a lengthy list detailing which relatives count as family. This can be done for any reason, but is an option particularly if your child receives a scholarship or decides not to attend college.
- Roll over funds from the 529 account to the 529 plan of one of your other children of the marriage without penalty. This is a good option if there are funds left over after graduation.
Either way, we encourage you to draft in your divorce decree what you will do if your children don’t use all of the 529 account funds. Each child has until the age of 30 to use the funds. At that point, you can either withdraw the funds and gift it to the child or the parents can divide the remaining funds 50/50 at the end of the time period.
Regardless of which option you choose, you will want to spell it out in your divorce decree today. Also, each state has different restrictions on 529 accounts, so check with your financial advisor or ask your plan provider for the specific requirements of your plan.
What if the beneficiary gets a scholarship?
You’ll be happy to learn that there is a scholarship exception to the 10% penalty. You can take a nonqualified withdrawal from a 529 account up to the amount of a scholarship; although you will pay taxes on the earnings, you won’t pay the additional 10% penalty that’s imposed on a nonqualified withdrawal. Remember to ask for a scholarship receipt for your tax records.
Consider how college savings affect student aid and loans
While individual colleges may treat assets held in a 529 plan differently, in general these assets have a relatively small effect on federal financial aid eligibility. Because 529 plan assets are considered assets of the parent, they tend to have a small effect when the government calculates your financial aid eligibility, whereas accounts that are considered assets of the child, such as an UGMA or UTMA account, tend to have a greater effect on federal financial aid eligibility. (This does not affect 529 accounts that are owned by a grandparent.) For more information, read about financial aid planning.
If you’re thinking of taking out loans that start incurring interest immediately, you may want to spend 529 funds first, deferring these loans until later. Another situation that would call for using 529 plan funds first would be if there’s a chance your child may graduate earlier or receive some other funding down the road, such as a scholarship.
Create a Plan for Dividing 529 Plans in Divorce
At some point, you’ll actually need to start spending the money you’ve set aside. You will need to think about preserving gains you may have made so that funds will be there when they’re needed. If your plan relies on an age-based investment strategy, this process is already in place and your asset mix has slowly evolved toward more conservative investments like money market funds and short-term bonds.
Now’s the time to sit down with your divorce team and decide the best ways of dividing 529 plans in divorce, how to use these funds and who will be in control of the funds going forward. The more you decide today, the less you have to decide in the future when the safety of your divorce attorney in negotiations with your spouse is gone.