If you really want to make impact in your new grad’s life, make an investment in his or her future with a 529 College Savings account. There are two versions: an investment account and a prepaid account. Assuming you are opening an account now and don’t have time for investment growth, you may need to fund it with a significant chunk of money for it to be useful. The savings plan is good for building an investment balance over time, including while the student is in college. On the other hand, the prepaid option is a good way to reinvest a windfall – such as an inheritance or proceeds from the sale of property.

A 529 College Savings Plan allows the account owner to open, fund, choose the investments and name the account beneficiary – yet you still retain control of the assets. Be aware that contributions do not qualify for a federal tax deduction, but more than 30 states allow a limited tax deduction or credit. While earnings and withdrawals used for qualified education expenses are not taxed at the federal level, there are a handful of states that do impose state taxes.

However, because you – the giver – retain control of the account, you can be assured that the money won’t be wasted on a trip to Cancun or a gap year backpacking through Europe. You determine when, how much and what distributions are used for. If you’re not happy with the student’s choices, you can change the beneficiary to someone else or keep it for yourself.

Gift Strategies for Retirees

There is generally no annual contribution limit to a 529 plan, but the total amount in a beneficiary’s account may not exceed the balance limit determined by each state. 529s are state-sponsored, but most states let non-residents open a plan. In addition, some states allow anyone who contributes to a 529 plan to take a state tax deduction. This way you also can invite friends and family to enjoy a tax deduction while contributing to the account for one big, combined graduation gift.

In 2022, you can contribute up to $16,000 per beneficiary ($32,000 per married couple) to a 529 plan without having to file a gift-tax return. However, if you want to stockpile the account for a big splash on graduation day, the IRS allows you to frontload up to five years’ donations in one year (up to $80,000; $160,000 for a married couple) outside the gift tax limit, although no other gifts can be made to the same beneficiary over the next five years. In this case, you must make the required election on a gift tax return that year to be allocated over five years. This five-year front-loading approach can be an effective estate planning strategy to remove assets from your taxable estate, yet retain control over them.

You also can maximize your gift by making it a two-for-one. In other words, gift it to your high school grad, then keep funding it during his university years. Any leftover balance can be his college graduation gift if he’s planning to go to law school or get an MBA. If not, you always have the option to keep the balance or gift it to him anyway – although proceeds not used for education expenses will be subject to taxes on earnings and a 10 percent penalty.

Student’s Choice

The 2019 SECURE Act enhanced the College 529 plan with additional options. Your new graduate can now use the money to pay for expenses associated with a registered apprenticeship program, or use up to $10,000 to repay student loans. Note that if proceeds are used to pay student loans, the loan interest cannot be used as a deduction that tax year.

The 529 gives your new graduate the option of how and when to use the funds. After all, the pandemic has thrown many young adults off course in different ways. Some are opting to go straight into the job market without a degree, while others are taking a gap year or two to get a feel for what type of career they want to pursue. With the College Savings investment plan, your contributions have the opportunity to grow tax-deferred indefinitely. Some states place time or age limits on the use of a prepaid plan. However, you can always retrieve unused assets from a 529 (subject to earnings and penalty taxes), so they are not lost by any means.


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