529 Plan Contributions

Person calculating tax contributions
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Higher education often leads to a higher income, especially with the right college major or graduate degree. It's a worthy investment, but school is expensive, and costs are rising. If scholarships aren’t in the cards (and even if they are), it’s a good idea to start saving money for educational expenses early and often. You might even get some help on your taxes.

One of the most powerful college savings vehicles is the 529 college savings plan. Such plans allow for the ability to make significant contributions with money that accumulates tax-free in these programs as long as you follow all relevant tax laws.

Maximum Contribution Limits

The IRS states that 529 plan contributions "can not exceed the amount necessary to provide for the qualified education expenses of the beneficiary." As state-sponsored programs, each state sets limits on how much can accumulate in 529 accounts. Fortunately for most savers, maximum limits allowed by respective states would be the least among worries—limits that most people never even come close to. But if you’re fortunate enough to have access to significant assets, it’s worth checking with your state (or the state hosting your 529 accounts, if different).

Most states limit total account balances to the total expected cost of higher education at eligible institutions.

Costs can include:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Room and board
  • Textbooks
  • Computers used for school
  • Graduate school (for another round of the expenses above)

Such costs can add up quickly so the maximum limits are accordingly high. For example, in New York, contributions can be made into the account until the beneficiary has $520,000 in New York 529 assets. The account can still continue to grow once the limit has been reached but new contributions would not be allowed unless the limit is raised. Other states have similarly high limits. California sets the maximum at $529,000 and Michigan allows up to $500,000.

To find the maximum allowed amount in any state, get a current copy of that state’s disclosure booklet. These numbers change from time to time, so always verify for yourself before making any investment decisions.

It's important to note that the maximum limit is just one of many factors which should determine the 529 program you use. Especially if your home state offers tax benefits for making contributions, it's important to evaluate the pros and cons of going out of state and giving up a deduction.

Gift Tax Issues

You can save a lot of money in a 529 plan, but adding funds too quickly can create complications.

The “gift tax” limits how much money can move from one person to another before the IRS gets involved. Spouses who are both U.S. citizens can give each other unlimited amounts, but contributions to a 529 plan for a child, grandchild, or another individual might be considered gifts, and those gifts can affect your current or future taxes.

Annual Exclusion

Individuals are allowed to gift a certain amount each year before triggering gift tax issues. This amount, known as the annual exclusion is $15,000 for tax years 2018 and 2019 (although 529 plans enjoy unique benefits described below), and applies to the individual making the gift—not the recipient. So a married couple filing a joint tax return could potentially give up to $30,000—with each spouse acting as an individual and contributing $15,000 each—without triggering gift tax issues.

Giving More Than the Maximum?

You’re free to gift more than $15,000 to the same person in one year. However, you must remember to report the gift to the IRS on Form 709, as it is required. But this isn’t as bad as it sounds—you won’t necessarily need to pay taxes on the gift as it may potentially apply to your lifetime exclusion.

Five-Year Election

For 529 contributions, the IRS allows up to five years’ worth of contributions at once with the potential to avoid gift tax consequences. An individual could contribute $75,000 (or $150,000 for a married couple) to a beneficiary’s 529 in one lump sum, but your IRS Form 709 must reflect your option to take the five-year election.

This is a powerful way to jump-start a savings plan. However, rules can be complicated and it’s easy to accidentally “overlap” gifts and give too much. The contribution of additional gifts within the five-year election of exclusions period may trigger tax consequences.

Alternately, if the individual who made the contribution dies within that five-year period, their estate may need to count a portion of the contribution for estate tax purposes (known as “recapture”).

Direct Payments

If you make payments outside of a 529 plan, directly to a higher education institution for tuition expenses, those payments are generally not subject to gift taxes. That’s not much help if you’re socking away money for a newborn, but it could be helpful for parents or grandparents helping out while a child is in school. This strategy isn’t perfect—it’s useful for tuition payments only. Money for room and board or other expenses may be treated as a gift. Also, it may affect the student’s ability to get financial aid.

Limits on Deductions

Another limit worth noting is the extent to which you get current-year tax benefits. In some states, filers may be eligible for a state income tax deduction on contributions to 529 plans. State tax deduction availability will vary by state and each state in the Union can have different deduction rules and limits.

The primary goal of a 529 account is to build assets for future expenses, so you may not care what the limits are. However, it’s always good to know how much you can benefit from making contributions, and you don’t want to claim a deduction that you’re not allowed to claim.

For example, New York state taxpayers using a New York 529 plan may be able to deduct up to $5,000 (or $10,000 for married couples filing jointly) on their state tax returns. Illinois doubles those amounts (a married couple can deduct up to $20,000), and some states allow you to deduct the full amount of your contributions. To complicate matters further, some states base the limit on the taxpayer claiming the deduction, while others apply separate limits for each beneficiary (contributing to multiple beneficiaries could provide a higher total deduction).

Contributions to a 529 might not qualify for a federal income tax deduction, but that’s not to say that federal benefits are non-existent. Earnings inside of a 529 are not taxed annually, and all of the earnings can potentially come out tax-free if the money is used for qualified higher education expenses. Of course, if the funds aren't used for qualified expenses, income tax and penalty taxes may be charged on the earnings.

Consult a Tax Professional

This page offers a general overview of 529 tax topics and state-run programs but it is no substitute for professional advice. States also often make changes to 529 plan rules annually. Before making big decisions or taking action with your money, please consult with a local tax advisor and a financial planner familiar with the rules in your state. The information on this page may be inaccurate or may not apply to your individual circumstances. It’s always better to prevent problems before they happen (by consulting with an expert) than to fix them.

The information contained in this article is not tax or legal advice and is not a substitute for tax or legal advice.