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Q: I just opened a 529 account for my daughter. How can I use it?
A: Assets in a 529 account have to be spent on qualified higher education expenses in order to come out of the account tax-free. Effective January 1, 2018, you can request a distribution, without federal tax consequences, from a 529 of up to $10,000 per calendar year per beneficiary to help pay for tuition at an elementary or secondary public, private or religious school. State tax treatment may vary. Besides college tuition and fees—the biggest educational bills you'll probably face—other eligible college expenses include such things as room, board, books, the purchase of computer and peripheral equipment, computer software, or Internet access and related services, required supplies, and certain expenses in the case of a special-needs beneficiary, as defined by the Internal Revenue Code.
Here’s an example of where you might run into problems if you try to test the limits of what "qualified higher education expenses" means: Using 529 funds to pay for a music degree at an accredited institution for your daughter would be fine, but if you use them to pay for private piano lessons, you’ll have to pay income tax on the earnings portion of the money you withdrew, as well as a 10% additional federal tax. You will never pay income tax or the additional federal tax on the principal portion of your withdrawal, regardless of what it is used for.
The rules are fairly flexible when it comes to how many students can benefit from your 529 account. Suppose you set aside $200,000 in an account for your daughter and you spend only half of the money. You could transfer the rest to an account for your son or even a niece or nephew. If there’s something left over, it can stay in the account indefinitely—and be ready, decades later, to help pay the cost of a grandchild’s education. Or it could even be used to fund your own or your spouse’s continuing education.
If you want to set aside money for lessons or other educational activities that a 529 doesn’t cover, you could consider a trust or a custodial account under the Uniform Gifts/Transfer to Minors Act (UGMA/UTMA). However, there are potential drawbacks to that strategy: These gifts can’t be taken back and don’t allow you to transfer assets between beneficiaries. What’s more, once the child you designate as beneficiary reaches a certain age—which varies by state—he or she will be free to spend the money for purposes other than education. If that’s a concern, you may decide you’re better off using a typical savings account to earmark money for educational goals that a 529 doesn’t cover. Your financial advisor can help you figure out what makes the most sense for your family.
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