During a financial crisis, families are forced to consider using the funds they've set aside for college savings accounts to help make ends meet. But can you withdraw money from a custodial account? Unfortunately, not always—at least not without a significant penalty.
When families start saving, they may be uncertain of how much money will be available to their family through federal financial aid—or they may want to prevent their child from taking on unmanageable federal student loans in the future—and thus they contribute aggressively. But when their budgets are stretched thin, they may be left without a choice but to take money out of the college fund.
Before college savings are needed for a child, and before a family's budget is in jeopardy, students and parents should consider the different rules and tax implications for various college funds, and decide which is best for their long-term financial outlook. Plans like UTMA and UGMA Custodial Accounts, Section 529 Plan Accounts, or Coverdell Education Savings Accounts are all unique, and financially flexible in their own ways.
UGMA and UTMA Rules for Withdrawal
UGMA and UTMA Custodial Accounts allow adults to make financial gifts to a beneficiary while naming someone else (including themselves) as the custodian of the account. The crucial word for these accounts is “gift.” The money in these accounts, once given, is the legal property of the beneficiary. The custodian’s job is to keep the fund safe and invest it wisely so that the beneficiary (a minor) will be able to use it for their education at a later date.
UGMA and UTMA accounts are often used to pay for college, but can also be used for any expense the minor incurs—anything from basic costs of living to leisure activities like team sports. The custodian must be able to prove that the minor directly benefits from the use of the money.
There are no IRS penalties on taking money out of a UGMA or UTMA account. Profits made on the liquidation of investments in a child’s UGMA or UTMA account are generally reported on the child’s tax return, but some or all might be included on the parent’s tax return, at the parent’s tax rate, depending on how the family files its federal taxes.
Section 529 Plan Withdrawal Rules
In 2019, there was an estimated 14 million Section 529 savings plans with total assets since 2009 reaching $352.4 billion.
Section 529 plans were designed to allow parents to retain more control than the UGMA and UTMA accounts. Someone who has contributed to a Section 529 plan can access the money at any time, for any reason. The contributor does not have to worry about explaining it to anyone, and the expense does not have to be for the benefit of the child.
The caution here is that money that is withdrawn from a Section 529 plan that is not used for higher education expenses will be subject to at least a 10% penalty, as well as all applicable income taxes for the account's profits. Any underlying investments may also charge an additional fee.
Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) Withdrawal Rules
The non-educational withdrawal rules on a Coverdell ESA fall somewhere between the Section 529 Plan rules and the UGMA/UTMA rules. The money invested is considered a gift to the beneficiary, but it can be rolled over to another beneficiary if the first doesn’t have qualifying education expenses by age 30.
Better yet, a beneficiary or custodian is not bound to using this account for exclusively higher education. While it can’t be used it for food or clothing, as a UGMA or UTMA account can be, it can be used for educational costs that occur before college. These costs can include K-12 private school tuition, tutoring, books, school uniforms, and technology, such as a personal computer or laptop.
If the money is used for qualified educational expenses, the money can be withdrawn completely tax-free. If it is not used for qualified education purposes (such as during a family emergency or economic crisis) the portion of the distribution that represents a gain is taxed to the beneficiary as income, and is also subjected to an additional 10% penalty.