529 College Savings Plans are tax-advantaged investment accounts for educational expenses including K-12 and post-secondary institutions. As long as you follow the guidelines, there are no penalties associated with the account. However, withdrawing money from the account for an ineligible expense can result in a penalty.
529 Savings Plan Withdrawal Penalty
There is a 10% penalty for withdrawing from a 529 plan for an expense other than eligible costs as outlined below. Note that the penalty applies to the earnings, not the contributions you have made. Also, that earned interest is considered taxable income, and the account holder is responsible for paying both federal and state taxes (if applicable) on the withdrawal. There are four cases in which a penalty may be avoided:
Note: In all of the exceptions below, it’s essential to remember that earnings on the withdrawal are still considered taxable income. The account holder must pay income taxes on all withdrawals, even in the above circumstances.
If the 529 plan beneficiary earns a scholarship, the account holder withdraw funds up to the amount of the scholarship penalty-free. For example, if a student receives a $20,000 scholarship and there is $100,000 in the 529 plan, the account holder may withdraw $20,000 penalty-free.
If the beneficiary attends a military academy, the account holder can withdraw from the account penalty-free.
In the event of disability, the account holder can withdraw from the account penalty-free. You can also convert the account to an ABLE account, a type of tax-advantaged account for individuals with disabilities and special needs. ABLE accounts do not affect a beneficiary’s access to Medicaid. However, if the ABLE account balance exceeds $100,000, SSI/SSDI benefits may be suspended until the account balance is below that limit.
If the beneficiary of a 529 plan dies, the account holder can withdraw from the account without penalty.
Eligible Expenses for a 529 College Savings Plan
The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act made 529 plans available for limited use for kindergarten through 12th grade tuition at private and non-public schools. Each year, up to $10,000 in a 529 College Savings Plan can be used to pay K-12 tuition and applicable expenses without fees.
College and University
Tuition, fees, books, computers/laptops, other equipment, and room and board for half-time and full-time students are considered eligible education expenses for 529 plans. Personal expenses and transportation fees are not qualified expenses. Any distribution used to pay eligible expenses is not subject to a penalty.
Though the account is called a 529 College Savings Plan, the 529 plan can be used to pay for a variety of post-secondary education opportunities including certificate programs, trade and vocational schools, and community college. The Department of Education School Search website contains a list of schools eligible to participate in federal financial aid programs. These schools are also eligible for 529 College Savings Plans. There are a variety of educational programs including massage therapy, cosmetology, and golf academy training that meet requirements for the 529 College Savings Plan.
Ineligible Expenses Are Subject to Penalties
If you exceed your Qualified Higher Education Expense (QHEE) or use the 529 plan to purchase ineligible expenses, such as transportation or insurance costs, you may be subject to a penalty. The penalty is 10% plus income tax on accrued earnings. The best way to avoid penalties is to only spend on eligible expenses. If you have any doubts, contact the school's financial aid office or your plan administrator to discuss how to appropriate funds.
Alternatives to Withdrawing Funds
If you are thinking about withdrawing funds because the beneficiary is no longer attending college, you do have other options to avoid a penalty. The account can be transferred to a family member (including parents and grandparents) to use for continuing education or a degree program. The 529 plan can be rolled into another 529 plan for a sibling, or you can hold the funds in case the beneficiary decides to attend college in the future.
529 College Savings Plan do not have a time limit or expiration date. If you have contributions in a 529 account that will not be used by the beneficiary, consult a tax professional before making a withdrawal. It is possible you may qualify for an exception, or be able to transfer funds without incurring a penalty.