What is an UGMA Account?

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You may have heard the acronym “UGMA” in reference to saving for a child’s college education, but what does it mean?  Most states in the U.S. have enacted a Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA), which permit adult custodians to establish investment accounts on behalf of child beneficiaries. Created as the predecessors to 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, UGMA accounts are not explicitly designed as savings accounts for a child’s college education, although many parents utilize them for exactly this purpose. The main purpose of an UGMA custodial account is to hold and protect assets for a child until he or she reaches the state-defined “majority age”.

Who is Eligible for an UGMA Account?

Any minor can be named as the designated beneficiary of an UGMA account. The custodian can be the child’s parent, another adult, or a financial advisor or institution. The donor and custodian need not be the same person or entity.

What Types of Assets Can UGMA Accounts Hold?

UGMA accounts are permitted to hold stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, but not higher-risk financial instruments such as stock options or securities purchased on margin. (UTMA accounts, on the other hand, can hold nearly any type of asset including real assets.) The ability of UGMA accounts to hold financial securities for the benefit of children is one of the main features of this type of account, since minors do not have the right to enter into contracts (which prevents them from directly owning financial securities). A custodian of an UGMA account, who has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the account’s assets prudently and for the sole benefit of the minor, is permitted to modify the asset allocation mix of the account at his or her own discretion.

How Can I Establish an UGMA Account?

U.S. banks and retail brokerage institutions can easily facilitate the establishment of UGMA accounts. Since UGMA accounts are not trust funds, no attorney is needed to prepare trust documents and court appointment of a trustee is not required. At the time that an UGMA account is established, a custodian and the account’s beneficiary must be named. Custodial ownership may be later transferred; however, the designated beneficiary is fixed and cannot be changed.

How Can I Contribute to an UGMA Account?

Anyone may donate to a child’s UGMA account without limit. All monies received into an UGMA account are the irrevocable property of the child - they may not later be reclaimed by the custodian or donor(s) under any circumstances.

How are UGMA Accounts Used?

An UGMA account must be “distributed” - i.e., re-registered in the beneficiary’s name - when the beneficiary reaches the majority age as defined by the state. (This age varies between 18 and 21 in most states.)  After custody of the account is transferred, the beneficiary may utilize the account proceeds at his or her sole discretion. Notably, before a beneficiary reaches the majority age, the custodian is permitted to withdraw funds from the account to pay for expenses - such as tuition, tutoring lessons, and computers - that specifically benefit the minor.

How do UGMA Accounts Affect Financial Aid?

One downside of UGMA accounts is how significantly they impact students’ eligibility to receive financial aid. Since UGMA accounts are owned by students, rather than parents, the assets held in these accounts are weighted more heavily by the FAFSA’s Federal Methodology in determining a student’s Expected Family Contribution. A student can expect that approximately twenty percent of the value of an UGMA account will need to be applied to the Expected Family Contribution for every year that the student wishes to receive federal financial aid.

How do UGMA Accounts Affect Taxes?

Donors who contribute to UGMA accounts may do so without limitation; however, all UGMA fund donations count toward the donor’s lifetime gifting limits. (Donors may still contribute above the maximum lifetime gifting limit, currently set at $11.18 million, but excess contributions above that limit are subject to taxation.) The assets held in UGMA accounts are not exempt from taxation; however, part of the reason why UGMA accounts are popular is due to the favorable tax treatment that they typically receive. The first $1,050 of earned income from investments in an UGMA account is usually tax-exempt, and any additional income up to $1,050 is taxed at the child’s (most likely nominal) tax rate. Earned income from an UGMA account above $2,100 is taxed at the greater of the parent’s or the child’s tax rate.

If a custodian dies before transferring an UGMA account to the beneficiary, then the UGMA account may be subject to taxation as part of the custodian’s estate.

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