Understanding 529 Withdrawal Rules
You Saved Smart—Now, Withdraw Smart Too
You’ve saved up for your kid's college for years and the big day is finally here. It’s time to withdraw from your 529 College Savings Plan. Withdrawing in the right way, and for the proper expenses, is critical if you want to make the most of the funds you’ve invested. Even if you’re not keen on studying the specific ins and outs of 529 withdrawals, there are a few things you absolutely need to know:
- What is the difference between qualified vs. non-qualified expenses?
- Are there any strategies or exceptions to allow non-qualified withdrawals without penalty?
- What happens if you make a non-qualified withdrawal?
Pro tip: You can always withdraw the money you originally invested, penalty-free. Only gains are subject to taxation and a 10 percent penalty if you've contributed after-tax money.
Understanding what happens when you withdraw from your 529 helps you properly plan for college and your child’s future.
Where Can My 529 Plan Be Spent?
Your 529 plan has specific rules for spending in return for those 529 tax benefits and other advantages. You can spend the money you’ve saved on expenses directly related to your college education costs, including:
- Tuition and Fees: Both tuition and fees for full and part-time students can be paid with 529 plans.
- Room and Board: Whether you live on campus or off, you can use your 529 plan spending for your room and board expenses. The caveat here is that your off-campus housing costs can’t be higher than you’d pay to live on campus if you want to use 529 funds.
- Required Textbooks and Supplies: The books listed in your course syllabus along with the supplies needed for class can be paid for with 529 plan funds.
- Technology: A new computer or tablet, your internet service and even a printer are covered when you need them for college.
- Special Needs and Adaptive Equipment: Devices you need to navigate campus or attend class, participate in or listen to lectures are covered by 529 plan funds. While transportation is usually not covered, if you have special needs, your transportation needs may be covered expenses.
Also, remember that these expenses can be related to any higher education institution that qualifies for federal financial student aid—which means it includes public and private institutions across the United States, and even several abroad. It also includes undergraduate institutions, graduate institutions, and even some trade schools.
What Expenses Are Non-Qualified for a 529?
Your 529 savings are designed for college, but some expenditures do not qualify even if they relate to your time in school or your coursework. These uncovered, non-qualified expenses include:
- Transportation: Your 529 savings cannot be used for your car, bus, airfare and gas expenses, even if you are using these to get to college.
- Student loan costs: You can’t pay your student loans or loan interest with your 529 plan savings.
- Sports or activities: Fees for athletics, sports clubs or school-sponsored groups or campus events can’t be paid with 529 plan funds.
- Health Insurance: Medical expenses you incur while in school and your health insurance can’t be paid with 529 savings.
529 Withdrawal Exceptions
While 529 withdrawal rules are fixed, there are ways to make non-qualified withdrawals without getting hit with that 10 percent penalty; these include:
- The student beneficiary receives a scholarship
- The student beneficiary dies
- The student beneficiary enrolls in a U.S. service academy
You’ll still have to pay income taxes on gains in one of these circumstances unless you pay for a qualified expense. If you have multiple children, you can change the beneficiary of your 529 plan if one gets a scholarship or another exemption occurs.
If your oldest child wins a scholarship or decides to attend a U.S. service academy, you can withdraw your funds without penalty, though you will have to pay taxes on gains. If you simply switch the beneficiary to be one of your younger children, you will not have any penalties, and that child will receive the full amount of your 529 plan savings.
Strategies Before You Make a Non-Qualified Withdrawal
Since most non-qualified withdrawals are penalized, you should only do so after carefully examining all your options. In many cases, a better strategy is available that will allow you to keep more of the funds you’ve worked so hard to accumulate. Before you commit to a non-qualified withdrawal, consider the following:
- Do you have other qualified expenses coming up? Paying for rent, books and supplies would be a better option for these funds and won’t subject you to a penalty.
- Will your child go on to grad school? If your child is heading to law, medical or grad school, your 529 savings can usually be used for these expenses, too.
- Can you choose another beneficiary? Switching your 529 plan savings to a younger child can help you save and jump-start that family member’s college savings.
- Can you just withdraw from the principal? You can withdraw the amount you invested without penalty, but leave the growth in place to avoid being penalized.
What Are the Possible 529 Withdrawal Penalties?
The most important thing to know about penalties and your 529 plan is that your principal can always be withdrawn without penalty. The money that grows over time is subject to penalties, though. Unlike normal investment accounts, the growth of your college accounts is treated and taxed as income and not capital gains.
If you remove funds for non-qualified expenses, then you’ll pay a 10 percent penalty on your gains. You’ll also be subject to income taxes on the gains and may even have to pay back any state income tax deductions you previously claimed.
Since penalties do exist for non-qualified withdrawals, fully understanding the differences between qualified and non-qualified expenses and taking steps to minimize your penalties before you withdraw will allow you to keep as much of your hard-saved investment as possible.
Ready to Withdraw?
The big day arrives after years of savings—so now what? You’ll start by deciding how much you need to withdraw for your qualified expenses. You should have an idea of how much will be needed after financial aid and any scholarships have been awarded.
Once you know how much you need, you need to decide who gets the funds. You can send funds directly to the college, add them to your own accounts for paying expenses or release the funds to your student (the beneficiary of the account). Save any bills, receipts and documentation for tax time.
Once the funds are released, you’ll need a completed form 1099-Q from the IRS. This form is specifically for 529 spending and ensures your taxes are calculated accurately, and you are not subject to penalties. The 529 plan manager or custodian will complete this form and send the student, parent and IRS a copy.