529 plans were created 22 years ago, in 1996, to give people a tax-advantaged way to save for college. Roth IRAs were created a year later, in 1997, to give people a tax-advantaged way to save for retirement. But a funny thing happened along the way — some parents adapted the Roth IRA as a college savings tool.
Tax benefits and use of funds
Roth IRAs and 529 plans have a similar tax modus operandi. Both are funded with after-tax dollars, contributions accumulate tax deferred, and qualified distributions are tax-free. But in order for a 529 plan distribution to be tax-free, the funds must be used for college or K-12 education expenses. By contrast, a qualified Roth distribution can be used for anything — retirement, college, travel, home remodeling, and so on.
In order for a distribution from a Roth IRA to be tax-free (i.e., a qualified distribution), a five-year holding period must be met and one of the following must be satisfied: The distribution must be made (1) after age 59½, (2) due to a qualifying disability, (3) to pay certain first-time homebuyer expenses, or (4) by your beneficiary after your death.
For purposes of this discussion, it’s the first condition that matters: whether you will be 59½ or older when your child is in college. If the answer is yes (and you’ve met the five-year holding requirement), then your distribution will be qualified and you can use your Roth dollars to pay for college with no tax implications or penalties. If your child ends up getting a grant or scholarship, or if overall college costs are less than you expected, you can put those Roth dollars toward something else.
But what if you’ll be younger than 59½ when your child is in college? Can you still use Roth dollars? You can, but your distribution will not be qualified. This means that the earnings portion of your distribution (but not the contributions portion) will be subject to income tax. (Note: Just because the earnings portion is subject to income tax, however, doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily have to pay it. Nonqualified distributions from a Roth IRA draw out contributions first and then earnings, so you could theoretically withdraw up to the amount of your contributions and not owe income tax.)
Also, if you use Roth dollars to pay for college, the 10% early withdrawal penalty that normally applies to distributions before age 59½ is waived. So the bottom line is, if you’ll be younger than 59½ when your child is in college and you use Roth dollars to pay college expenses, you might owe income tax (on the earnings portion of the distribution), but you won’t owe a penalty.
If 529 plan funds are used for any other purpose besides the beneficiary’s qualified education expenses, the earnings portion of the distribution is subject to income tax and a 10% federal tax penalty.
Financial aid treatment
At college time, retirement assets aren’t counted by the federal or college financial aid formulas. So Roth IRA balances will not affect financial aid in any way. (Note: Though the aid formulas don’t ask for retirement plan balances, they typically do ask how much you contributed to your retirement accounts in the past year, and colleges may expect you to apply some of those funds to college.)
By contrast, 529 plans do count as an asset under both federal and college aid formulas. (Note: Only parent-owned 529 accounts count as an asset. Grandparent-owned 529 accounts do not, but withdrawals from these accounts are counted as student income.)
With a Roth IRA, your investment choices are virtually unlimited — you can hold mutual funds, individual stocks and bonds, exchange-traded funds, and REITs, to name a few.
With a 529 plan, you are limited to the investment options offered by the plan, which are typically a range of static and age-based mutual fund portfolios that vary in their level of risk. If you’re unhappy with the market performance of the options you’ve chosen, under federal law you can change the investment options for your existing contributions only twice per calendar year (though you can generally change the investment options on your future contributions at any time).
Eligibility and contribution amounts
Unfortunately, not everyone is eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA. For example, your income must be below a certain threshold to make the maximum annual contribution of $5,500 (or $6,500 for individuals age 50 and older).
By contrast, anyone can contribute to a 529 plan; there are no restrictions based on income. Another significant advantage is that lifetime contribution limits are high, typically $300,000 and up. And 529 plan rules allow for large lump-sum, tax-free gifts if certain conditions are met — $75,000 for single filers and $150,000 for married joint filers in 2018, which is equal to five years’ worth of the $15,000 annual gift tax exclusion.
529 plan assets surpass $300 billion mark
As of September 2017, assets in 529 plans totaled $306 billion.
Source: Strategic Insight, 529 College Savings & ABLE, 3Q 2017 529 Data Highlights
Investors should carefully consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with 529 plans before investing. Specific information is available in each plan’s official statement. Keep in mind that there is the risk that 529 plan investments may not perform well enough to cover costs as anticipated. Also consider whether your state offers any 529 plan state tax benefits and whether they are contingent on joining your own state’s 529 plan. Other state benefits may include financial aid, scholarship funds, and protection from creditors.
Copyright 2006-Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. All rights reserved.
Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. does not provide investment, tax, or legal advice. The information presented here is not specific to any individual’s personal circumstances.
To the extent that this material concerns tax matters, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances.
These materials are provided for general information and educational purposes based upon publicly available information from sources believed to be reliable—we cannot assure the accuracy or completeness of these materials. The information in these materials may change at any time and without notice.
*Non-deposit investment products and services are offered through CUSO Financial Services, L.P. (“CFS”), a registered broker-dealer (Member FINRA / SIPC) and SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Products offered through CFS: are not NCUA/NCUSIF or otherwise federally insured, are not guarantees or obligations of the credit union, and may involve investment risk including possible loss of principal. Investment Representatives are registered through CFS. Coastal Federal Credit Union has contracted with CFS to make non-deposit investment products and services available to credit union members.
CFS representatives do not provide tax or legal guidance. For such guidance please consult with a qualified professional. Information shown is for general illustration purposes and does not predict or depict the performance of any investment or strategy. Past performance does not guarantee future results.
Trust Services are available through MEMBERS Trust Company. CFS* is not affiliated with Members Trust Company.