Q: I have college savings for my children in both education savings accounts (ESAs) and 529s. Is there a difference in the way those accounts are calculated for potential financial aid? Would there be any benefit to consolidating into one type of account? — Mike Spofford, Green Bay, Wisc.
A: The good news: There is no difference in how Coverdell ESAs and 529 savings plans factor into your child’s student aid, says Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that helps people plan and pay for college.
Both of these education accounts are considered qualified tuition plans. So as long as they are owned by a student or a parent, the plans are reported as an asset on financial aid forms and have a minimal impact on your aid eligibility (federal aid will be reduced by no more than 5.64% of the value of the account). What's more, your account distributions are not considered income, Kantrowitz adds.
Education savings accounts and 529s share other appealing features: Your savings grows tax-deferred and withdrawals are tax free as long as the money goes toward qualified education expenses. If you spend it on anything else, you will be hit by income taxes on the earnings as well as a 10% penalty.
One of the biggest differences is how much you can put in. ESA contributions max out at $2,000 per child per year, while 529s have no contribution limits. However, if you put more than $14,000 a year into your child's 529—or $28,000 as a couple—the excess counts against your lifetime gift tax exclusion and must be reported to the IRS. You can get around that by using five-year tax averaging, which treats the gift as if it were made over the next five years.
Coverdell ESAs give you more investment options—from certificates of deposit to individual stocks and bonds to mutual funds and ETFs; you're usually limited to a small number of mutual funds in a 529 plan. But you don't need that much investing flexibility, Kantrowitz notes, since you want to keep risks and fees to a minimum over the short time you have to save for college.
Another key difference is that ESA funds can be spent on K-12 expenses; 529s must wait until college. ESAs also come with age restrictions. You can contribute only while the beneficiary is under 18, and to avoid penalties and taxes you must spend the funds by the beneficiary’s 30th birthday (with a 30-day grace period).
You can get around this age limit by changing the beneficiary to an under-18 close relative of the beneficiary. Or you can roll it over into a 529 plan with no tax penalty. (You cannot roll your 529 into a Coverdell ESA, however.) In fact, later-in-life education is one of the only reasons to consolidate plans. Otherwise, says Kantrowitz, there is no compelling reason to combine your two savings accounts into one.