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    What Are the 529 Plan Rules?

    By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: March 14th, 2024
    What Are the 529 Plan Rules?

    Before you start depositing your money into a 529 Plan, it’s important to have a full understanding of their rules. 529 Plans have a specific set of rules for everything, including how their funds can be used and deposited. In this article, we’ll answer all your questions about 529 Plans. Read on to learn all about one of the most useful tools to maximize your college savings.

    Also see: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

    529 Plans explained

    A 529 Plan is a type of savings plan that students, their family, and family friends can use to help save for college. The 529 Plan has special tax advantages. Withdrawals used to pay for educational expenses are not subject to federal, and usually state, taxes. This means that your investment can grow over time without being taxed. If you are saving for college for yourself or for someone else, 529 Plans are typically the best way to do it. Their benefits are magnified the earlier you start saving; you’ll earn interest on interest as they continue to grow.

    What you can pay for with 529 Plan funds

    529 Plans can only be used to pay for approved educational expenses. These include tuition and fees, books and other class supplies, room and board, and internet. Students are only eligible to use 529 Plans for room and board if they are enrolled at least half-time. Computers and special needs equipment are also eligible for 529 Plan funding if they are related to your education. These funds can be used at any federally approved program. This can include 4-year or 2-year undergraduate programs, trade school, graduate school, and other programs. Withdrawals made for purposes other than approved education expenses are subject to a 10% penalty and ordinary income taxes. 

    There are a few exceptions to this rule. If the beneficiary receives a scholarship, you can withdraw money equal to the amount awarded. These earnings will still be subject to taxes but there will be no additional penalty. 

    Owners of the 529 plan can also change the beneficiary on the account at any time. For example, say one child receives a full-ride scholarship or chooses not to go to college. The 529 account can then be passed down to their sibling or a different family member with no penalties or fees. 

    Learn more: Does a 529 Plan impact financial aid?

    529 Plan tax exemptions

    In most states, 529 Plan contributions can be claimed as state income tax deductions. Your state government will return all the state taxes paid on that income at the end of the year.

    Contributions are not exempt from federal taxes, but their earnings are. This means that as your investment grows, it will not be subject to taxes on that growth. These benefits are magnified as they grow over time.

    Also see: How much is the 529 plan tax deduction worth?

    Who has ownership over 529 accounts

    529 Plans allow the funds to remain under the account owner’s control, even if the beneficiary reaches an age of majority such as 18 or 21, depending upon the state they reside. Therefore, the owner of the 529 Plan, whether that be a parent or relative, can choose when and how much money to withdraw at any given time. It is important to note that there are fees and penalties for withdrawing money from the account if they are not for educational purposes for the beneficiary. 

    529 Plan contribution limits

    Each state sets its own limit for the total sum of money you can have in a 529 Plan account. These limits should reflect the total cost of a higher education in that state, including an undergraduate and graduate degree. These costs include tuition, room and board, books, and other fees. Typically the limit is over $250,000, but be sure to double check with your state’s rules for the 529 max contribution limit

    You can contribute as much money annually as you’d like, but only a certain amount is eligible for state tax breaks. These limits vary by state. Many range between $2,000 and $4,000 per year. This is a good incentive to begin contributing early to maximize your tax breaks.

    For more details: How much can you contribute to a 529 Plan?

    Who sponsors 529 Plans?

    States sponsor 529 Plans, but you are allowed to choose a 529 Plan from any state that you’d like. Most people choose a plan in the state in which they reside because, typically, states offer income tax deductions for residents of their state. However, if your state doesn’t offer any tax benefits, it’s a good idea to shop around to find the right fit.

    The exception to this rule is if the 529 plan is a prepaid plan which means you will prepay tuition at in-state public colleges and lock in today’s current tuition rates. Only a few states, including Texas and Florida, offer this type of prepaid 529 plan. It would only make sense to invest if you are sure your child will attend an in-state public school for your state of residence. 

    Read more: How to choose the best 529 Plan for you

    Additional resources

    If you’re a parent looking to plan for your child’s educational future, you’re in the right place. We have resources to help you and your child through every step of the application process. You can start off with our guide to how much to save for college. This includes information on savings vehicles, as well as when you should start saving, and more. You can also encourage your child to start applying for scholarships – regardless of their age, we have opportunities for them! That includes middle school scholarships and high school full ride scholarships, as well as our free scholarship search tool for all ages.

    Remember, aside from saving money for college, it’s also important to set your student on the right educational path now so that they have the best options when it comes time to apply. Our comparison of private vs public schools can help you make an educated decision as to where you send your child. Once they’re in high school, it’s important to ensure that they are on a good track to create a good impression on admissions officers. Our high school checklist and guides to internships and extracurricular activities can help you keep your finger on the pulse. You can also check out our guide to GPAs to get an idea of what GPA you want to shoot for. Good luck and make sure to check back as you move through the admissions process!

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    Frequently asked questions about 529 Plan rules

    Can I pay for a school health insurance plan with 529 Plan funds?

    No, health insurance plans are not considered qualified expenses.

    Are 529 Plans transferable?

    Yes! You can change the beneficiary of your 529 plan at any time. If you start an account for your child who doesn’t end up going to college, you can use that money to pay for their sibling’s education instead. 

    Can I pay for college application fees with a 529 Plan?

    No, expenses related to the college application process are not considered qualified expenses.

    Who owns the funds in a 529 Plan?

    The owner of the account is the person who is depositing funds. The account does not shift ownership when the beneficiary turns 18.

    Can I pay off student loans with a 529 Plan?

    Yes. If you have money left over in your 529 Plan, you can use it to pay off student loans that you may have taken out. However, you can only use up to $10,000 of your 529 Plan to go towards student loans. If possible, you’d be better off using your 529 Plan to pay your tuition up-front to avoid taking out any loans in the first place.

    What happens to the funds if the account beneficiary doesn’t attend college?

    If the account beneficiary doesn’t attend college, you can change the beneficiary to another family member, or you can withdraw the funds from the account and use them for whatever you want. However, if you withdraw the funds from the account, you will incur a 10% charge on top of the income tax that you have deducted.

    Do I qualify for a 529 Plan?

    Yes. Everyone is eligible to start a 529 Plan, regardless of your income, your assets, or the state you live in. 

    Can I use 529 Plan funds to pay for elementary or secondary school?

    Yes, you can pay for up to $10,000 in tuition expenses for elementary or secondary school. This adds some flexibility to your 529 Plan. If you send your child to a private secondary school, you can tap into your 529 savings to help pay for it.

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