A 529 account can be a useful addition to a financial plan for a child's education.
But these accounts sometimes can create uncertainty about what happens to the money used to fund them. After all, the beneficiary may decide not to go to college. Or they may not need the money if they get a scholarship or some other financial aid. They may also decide to go to a cheaper school, or might qualify for employer educational assistance, among other circumstances.
Fortunately, recent legislative changes may put some of these concerns to rest, as distributions from 529 accounts can soon be used to give the same beneficiaries a retirement boost as well. Starting in 2024, you'll be able to convert tax- and penalty-free up to a lifetime limit $35,000 in a 529 to a Roth IRA owned by the 529 beneficiary for at least 15 years, subject to annual Roth IRA contribution limits. (Note: The annual contribution limit and income limits used would be the beneficiary's, not the parent's, and conversions apply only to Roth IRAs, not to traditional IRAs.)
The new provision is part of the SECURE 2.0 Act, passed by Congress at the end of 2022, which overhauled parts of the American retirement system. In addition to the 529 rule, it also increased contribution amounts for older workers into qualified accounts, as well as the age at which retirees must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from such accounts. The legislation also provided a boost to younger workers, allowing for employer matching into retirement accounts for student loan payments, and for the establishment of emergency funds in qualified plans, among other things.
Find out more about SECURE ACT 2.0 in Viewpoints: SECURE 2.0: Rethinking retirement savings.
529s have numerous tax advantages.
Among them, individual contributions up to $17,000 per year, and $34,000 per married couple, are not considered taxable gifts to the beneficiary. Additionally, in 2023 you can front-load a 529 plan (giving 5 years' worth of annual gifts of up to $17,000 at once for a total of $85,000 per person, per beneficiary) without having to pay a gift tax.1
The money in the account can also grow tax-deferred, and you may contribute up to the 529 plan's maximum contribution limit. While there are no federal deductions for 529s, some states offer deductions on in-state plans. Others may offer tax breaks on 529 plan contributions in any state, or may use a tax credit. You should check your home state plan or the beneficiary's for potential state tax advantages.
529s, penalties for nonqualified expenses, and Roth distributions
Given the expense of higher education today, it may seem like a stretch that money in a 529 would go unused. Nevertheless, if you or the account's beneficiary decide to use the account funds for nonqualified expenses, you may be subject to income tax and a 10% federal tax penalty on any earnings associated with the distribution. That's where a conversion to a Roth IRA could make sense. However, there are several things to consider before going ahead with such a transfer.
- The 529 plan must be held for the designated beneficiary for at least 15 years.
- The amount transferred from a 529 account to a Roth IRA in the applicable year, together with all other contributions in such year to IRAs for the same beneficiary, must not exceed the Roth IRA annual contribution limit applicable to such beneficiary.
- Additionally, the transfer amount must come from contributions made to the 529 account at least five years prior to the transfer date and the aggregate amounts transferred from 529 accounts to all Roth IRAs must not exceed $35,000 per beneficiary.
Good to know: You can change the beneficiary of the 529 account to another eligible individual, such as a child, grandchild, or eligible relative to fund an education. However, if the child is in a younger generation than the original designated beneficiary, the funds may be considered a gift for tax purposes. You should consult with a tax professional regarding your specific circumstances.
Let's look at a hypothetical example. Carol is 22, and her parents have set up a 529 account for her, with total plan assets of $30,000 ($20,000 in contributions, and $10,000 of gains.)
Rather than attend college or a qualifying vocational school, she decides to work as a freelance graphic designer. So she does not use the funds her parents set aside for her in a 529 plan.
Carol's parents don't want to pay taxes on the money in the account, as they would have to do if they were to use it for nonqualified or noneducational expenses. In addition to paying federal income taxes at their ordinary income tax rate, they may owe a 10% federal penalty tax on any earnings associated with the distribution.
How Carol's 529 could be taxed
But with SECURE 2.0, Carol's parents can convert the excess assets (up to a lifetime limit of $35,000) into a Roth IRA for Carol tax-free. Due to annual contribution limits, this strategy would take multiple years to fully transfer the remaining 529 plan assets.
Transferring assets from Carol's 529 to a Roth IRA
IRA contribution limit: $7,000 for 2024
|Rollover to Roth IRA
|Remaining 529 assets
Over time, the $30,000 can provide a significant boost to Carol's retirement savings.
Carol's Roth IRA assets over time
|Carol's retirement age
|Carol's Roth assets
|Hypothetical rate of return
|Carol's assets at retirement
The illustration assumes the individual is age 27 today with a balance of $30,000 in Roth assets, retiring at age 67. The rate of return is assumed to be 7%.
Income considerations for 529 rollovers
Unlike regular Roth contributions, which have modified adjusted gross income limitations, conversions to a Roth IRA from a 529 aren't similarly restricted at this time. Such a transfer would be subject to Roth IRA annual contribution limits. However, there may be instances where the 529 beneficiary is not eligible to transfer the full amount of the annual Roth IRA contribution limit from the 529 because the 529 beneficiary had no income or small income during a calendar year, made the maximum contributions to a Roth IRA or a traditional IRA during the same calendar year, or had a relatively large income.2
Important to know: IRA contributions require sufficient earned income. At this time it is unclear if sufficient earned income would be applicable for 529 conversions to Roth IRAs.
Further guidance from the IRS may clarify or change the interpretation of the legislation. So it's always best to consult with a financial or tax professional regarding your specific circumstances. In the meantime, starting next year the beneficiary of your 529 account will have more options, whether that's paying for school or beefing up their retirement savings.