Friday, May 25, 2018
The TCJA and I.R.C. 529 Plans
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) made significant changes to individual income taxes, the tax on C corporations, and also created a new deduction for pass-through entities. The TCJA also modified some of the rules applicable to I.R.C. 529 College Savings Plans (“Section 529 Plans”). In light of the changes applicable to Section 529 plans, it’s worth examining those changes and how they might impact planning.
That’s the focus of today’s post – the TCJA changes to Section 529 plans.
Origination. Section 529 plans originated at the state level, particularly the pre-paid tuition program of the State of Michigan. The idea was to provide a vehicle to help minimize the cost of college tuition be creating a fund to which Michigan residents could pay a fixed amount in exchange for a promise that the fund would pay a designated beneficiary’s college tuition at a Michigan public college or university. The trust invested the contributed amounts to pay tuition costs of beneficiaries in the future. Basically, this allowed the prepayment of college education at a fixed rate un-impacted by tuition increases in future years. The concept was aided by the IRS when the IRS determined that purchasers of the "prepaid tuition contract" were not taxed on the contract value accruing value until the year(s) in which funds were either distributed or refunded. 1996 federal legislation authorized qualified state tuition programs.
Types. A Section 529 plan can be one of two types – a prepaid tuition plan or a college savings plan. All states have at least one type of plan. Under a prepaid tuition plan, the account holder buys units (credits) at a participating “eligible educational institution” for future tuition and fees at current prices for the beneficiary of the account. With a “college savings plan,” a person opens an investment account to save for the beneficiary’s future tuition fees as well as room and board.
There can be numerous tax benefits at the state level that apply to contributions to a Section 529 plan. These can include the ability to deduct contributions from state income tax or the availability of matching grants. If funds in an account are withdrawn to pay qualified education expenses, then the account earnings are not subject to federal (and often) state income tax. If the withdrawals aren’t used to pay qualified educational expenses, a penalty applies. In that situation, each withdrawal is treated as containing a pro-rata portion of earnings and principal. The earnings portion of a non-qualified withdrawal is taxed at ordinary income rates and is also subjected to a 10 percent additional tax absent an exception.
Distributions from a Section 529 plan for an eligible student that are used for qualifying higher education expenses at an eligible institution are not include in income. An “eligible student” is one that is enrolled in a program leading to recognized educational credentials; enrolled at least one-half time; and without any federal or state felony drug conviction.
Eligible Educational Institution
An “eligible educational institution” includes colleges, universities, vocational schools, or other postsecondary schools eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education. Under the TCJA, an “eligible educational institution” is expanded to include public, private or religious elementary schools and secondary schools. As originally proposed, homeschool expenses would have also qualified for Section 529 plans but were struck by the parliamentarian in the Senate as a violation of the “Byrd Rule.”
Section 529 plans can be used to fund up to $10,000 of tuition cost per year per beneficiary that is required for attendance at an eligible educational institution. In other words, under the TCJA Section 529 plan funds can be used to pay tuition expenses of up to $10,000 per student annually from all of a taxpayer’s Section 529 accounts for tuition of a beneficiary that is incurred for enrollment or attendance at a public, private or religious elementary or secondary level.
Definition. “Qualified Expenses” include reasonable costs for room and board. That is generally limited to the lesser of room and board costs of attendance as published by the educational institution or actual expenses. However, if the student beneficiary is living on campus, actual costs can be used even if in excess of published room and board costs. Likewise, Section 529 plan funds can be used to cover fees, books, supplies and equipment but only if they are required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution.
“Qualified higher education expenses” included tuition, fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, as well as reasonable room and board if the student was enrolled at least half-time. Eligible schools included colleges, universities, vocational schools, or other postsecondary schools eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education. This includes nearly all accredited public, nonprofit, and proprietary (for-profit) postsecondary institutions.
The TCJA retools the definition of what constitutes “qualified expenses” for purposes of distributions from a Section 529 plan. For distributions after Dec. 31, 2017, “qualified higher education expenses” is broadened to include (as noted above) tuition at an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school, up to a $10,000 limit per tax year. I.R.C. §529(c)(7).
As for computer-related technology, qualified costs include the computer and any necessary peripheral equipment. Also included is computer software, internet access and related services. However, expenses associated with computer technology can only be covered by Section 529 funds if the technology is used by a plan beneficiary during the years that they are enrolled in an eligible educational institution. Importantly, computer technology expenses do not include software designed for sports, games, and hobbies unless the software is predominantly educational in nature.
Reduction. Qualifying expenses must be reduced for tax-free scholarships that the beneficiary receives as well as other educational assistance. They must also be reduced for the amount of qualifying expenses that are used to obtain education credit.
Special Needs Beneficiary and ABLE Accounts.
Section 529 plan funds can also be used to provide for expenses associated with a special needs beneficiary. These include special needs services incurred in connection with the enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution.
For distributions after December 22, 2017, the TCJA allows amounts from a Section 529 plan to be rolled over to an ABLE account without penalty if the ABLE account owner is either the designated beneficiary of the Section 529 plan account or a member of the designated beneficiary’s family. I.R.C. §529(c)(3). Created by legislation in 2014, ABLE accounts are tax-advantaged savings accounts for individuals with disabilities and their families. The account beneficiary is the account owner, and account earns income tax-free. Contributions to the account (which can be made by any person) must be made using post-tax dollars. As such, account contributions are not tax deductible at the federal level. It is possible, however, that some states may allow deductible contributions on the state return.
Any amount that is rolled-over from a Section 529 plan account to an ABLE account is counted towards the overall limitation on amounts that can be contributed to an ABLE account within a tax year ($15,000 for 2018), and any amount rolled over in excess of this limitation is includible in the distributee’s gross income.
Some expenses cannot be paid with funds from a Section 529 plan. Non-qualifying expenses include books, supplies, or equipment that is not required for enrollment or classes. Also not qualifying are transportation expenses to and from school. This includes car travel expenses, airline tickets and parking, etc.). Health insurance covering the beneficiary also is not a qualifying expenses, nor is any expense for athletic events or activities not required for coursework. Fraternity or sorority dues are likewise not qualified expenses, nor are the costs of cell phones or student loan repayment amounts.
Section 529 plans have been around for some time now. However, the amendments made by the TCJA make them a more powerful tool to fund the education of a beneficiary on a tax-favored basis.