Saving for College: UTMAs and 529 Plans

With the costs of attending college increasing every year, many parents wonder what is the best way for them to save for a child's education. While there are several different options for saving for college, two of the most popular choices are UTMA accounts and 529 plans.

UTMA Basics

UTMA (Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) accounts are custodial accounts that can be set up at any financial institution. One parent generally serves as the custodian over the account. UTMA accounts allow parents to put securities, bonds and other investments in a child's name. Once their child reaches the age of majority, the assets in the account become the child's property. In Illinois, the age of majority under the Act is 18 for most types of investments and 21 for gifts.

The investments placed in the UTMA account can be used to pay for college or for anything else, so long as it benefits the child. Any assets placed into the account are forever the child's – the parents may not transfer them back. This is known as an "irrevocable gift." Once the child reaches the age of majority, however, the custodian loses control over the account and the child can use the assets for whatever he or she wants, which may or may not include education expenses.

529 Plans

Parents looking for a way to save for college also have the option of opening up one of the many state-sponsored 529 plans. These plans are offered by each individual state, so there is variation in the types of 529s available and the benefits offered. However, there are some common denominators for all of the plans, including federal tax benefits. The money placed in 529 plans grows tax-free and may be deducted without federal tax consequences so long as it is used for educational expenses.

Unlike UTMA accounts, a child does not gain control over the funds in a 529 account once he or she reaches 18. Instead, the parents always retain control over the assets in the account. Additionally, the parents can use the funds in 529s for other purposes besides the child's education, although they will have to pay taxes on the money and a penalty for doing so. The account also is transferable and can be transferred to another child if the intended child beneficiary decides not to go to school.

Pros and Cons of the UTMAs and 529s

There are benefits and drawbacks to UTMAs and 529 plans. Some of the factors parents should consider before opening either type of account include:

  • Tax benefits

UTMAs used to provide a significant tax shelter, but the rules have since been changed. Now, any assets in the account valued at more than $1900 are taxed at the same rate as the parent's income.

The money placed into a 529 plan is tax-free and can be taken out of the account tax-free, so long as it is used for qualified educational expenses. The money can be taken out for non-educational expenses, but it is then subject to federal taxes as well as a 10% penalty. States also may offer state income tax benefits to their residents who invest in their 529 plans.

  • Financial aid eligibility

Assets in a UTMA account are attributed to the child for purposes of determining financial aid. Depending on the value of the account, this can have a profound effect on the child's ability to get need-based financial aid.

Assets in 529 plans, on the other hand, are considered the parents' assets. While they still will be considered when determining financial aid eligibility, it will have less of a potential impact on the child's ability to obtain federal financial aid.

  • Limits on contributions

There is no limit on the amount of contributions that may be made each year to a UTMA account. However, parents who give more than $13,000 individually or $26,000 jointly may be required to pay gift taxes on the transfer.

Most 529 plans will have either an annual cap or a plan cap on the amount of money that may be placed in the account. As with UTMA accounts, parents who contribute more than the federal limits for gifts may be subject to gift taxes.

  • Degree of involvement in investing

In UTMA accounts, the custodian has complete control over the types of investments that are made. 529 plans do not offer this type of control. Instead, an administrator is selected by the institution sponsoring the plan, who then determines how to invest the money. 529s also limit the amount of times that parents can change the plan's portfolio, which is generally only once per year.

With the current uncertainty in the market and the losses many suffered to their retirement accounts and 529 plans, parents may be uncomfortable relinquishing control over the account's investments. For those who want complete control over how the funds are invested, UTMA accounts are a better choice.

  • Control

The custodian only has control over UTMA accounts until the child reaches the age of majority. At that time, title to the assets goes to the child, who then is free to do as he or she pleases with the assets.

In 529s, the parent retains control over the account and how the assets are used at all times.

  • Flexibility

While the custodian still has control over a UTMA account, the assets can be used for anything so long as it is for the child's benefit. This may include paying tuition, but also could include purchasing a car. Once the child reaches the age of majority, the assets can be used by the child for any purpose, educational or otherwise.

The assets in a 529 plan should be used for education expenses to maximize the tax benefits of the account. However, the account can be used for other expenses, but will be subject to income tax and a penalty.

Legal Issues With UTMA Plans

It is important for parents considering setting up a UTMA plan to remember that any contributions they make to this plan are irrevocable gifts that belong to their child. This means that while the parent has custodial authority over the account, the investments and funds in the account must be made for the child's – not the parent's – benefit.

Thus, a parent falling on hard times cannot sell, transfer or otherwise use the assets in the UTMA account for his or her own purposes. Likewise, the parent cannot transfer the assets back to him or herself. Moreover, a custodian who does not act in the best financial interests of the child beneficiary may have legal liability for his or her acts.

Conclusion

Deciding how best to save for your child's future is an important decision. For more information on UTMA and 529 accounts, contact an experienced attorney today.