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  • Writer's picture Treavor Dodsworth CFP®, CPA, CKA®

#91 - To 529 or Not 529

To 529 or Not 529

The usefulness of 529 accounts is occasionally debated given that if not used for their intended purpose taxes and a penalty can be owed. That said, generally speaking, I am still a proponent of 529s to some degree depending on the goals, tax situation, and other assets of an individual.

A 529 is a type of account that is used for saving for qualified education expenses. In the past, qualified education expenses were largely limited to costs that were related to college. The federal law has been changed to expand this definition (i.e. limited payment of student loans or K-12 tuition). States may or may not conform to the federal definition of qualified education expenses.

There are two primary tax benefits of investing in 529s. First, if distributions are used for qualifying expenses, then any growth in the account is tax-free. Second, many states offer a deduction or credit on state tax returns for qualifying contributions to a 529. Indiana has one of the best incentives as they allow Indiana residents a 20% tax credit on qualifying contributions up to $5,000 ($1,000 max tax credit).

The downside is if the money in the 529 is not used for qualifying expenses you will owe ordinary income tax and a penalty (10%) on the earnings portion and potentially have to pay back the state tax incentive.

Let’s walk through an example. Let’s say there is a brand new Hoosier born and his parents are wondering if they should put $5,000 into the Indiana 529 or invest $5,000 into an Individual account. The following chart assumes the state tax benefit is saved in the 529 as well and that the state tax benefit has to be repaid if the account is not used for qualified expenses.

If the 529 is used for qualified expenses, using the 529 was better than the alternative by $4,570. If not used for qualified expenses, the 529 was worse by $1,428. In other words, if there is at least a 25% chance the money will be used for a qualified expense (by that individual or another individual), they are likely to come out ahead by using the 529 vs investing in an individual account.

By no means is that 25% a universal rule. Changing tax brackets, years until 529 use, investment return, etc. will adjust the results. For example, in states where the tax benefit is minimal to none, there will likely need to be a significantly higher possibility of the money being used for a qualified expense.

Every individual’s situation is unique and there are many ramifications I did not go into here (for example financial aid eligibility). Give me a call/email if you want me to talk through your individual situation.


Interesting Article(s) or Video(s)

  • Jeffrey Levine discusses how an individual could use a 529 to pay for multiple generations of education expenses without ever paying taxes on the growth of the funds. In the article, he discusses changing from one state 529 plan to another. You do need to be careful doing this as, among other significant factors, depending on the state it may cause the state tax incentive to have to be repaid.


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