Updated for 2021. Should you use a 529 plan to pay for private school? The 2017 tax reform legislation included sweeping changes to our tax code. One of the provisions can benefit parents who plan to send their children to private school. Starting in 2018, parents can use up to $10,000 per year from a 529 plan to pay private school tuition for kids in grades K-12. However, just because you can use a 529 plan for private school, doesn’t mean you should. Here are the rules for using 529 plans to pay for private school.

Rules on using a 529 plan to pay for private school

The changes to the tax code allowing qualified withdrawals from 529 plans to pay for private high school and elementary school education apply to the federal tax code. In another words, The tax legislation in 2018 changed the federal tax treatment of 529 plans. More specifically, the provision allows families to use up to $10,000 per year, per child from a 529 plan to help pay for private school in grades K-12. Although contributions are still not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes, when funds pay for qualified college expenses or K-12 tuition (up to the limit), withdrawals are tax-free.

State tax rules for 529 plans and private school

Keep in mind that 529 plans actually run by the states. States often have different rules and benefits of 529 plan participation for in-state residents; many even offer tax credits or tax deductions to its residents for contributions in a 529 plan. Some, but not all, states adopted federal guidance to allow tax-free 529 plan withdrawals to pay for private school.

Here’s how the rules vary by state:

  • Some states expanded their tax deduction to cover contributions later used for K-12 expenses.
  • Several states don’t offer state income tax deductions or tax credits for K-12 tuition, but distributions for K-12 tuition are state-tax free. This exactly mirrors the federal tax treatment of 529 plans.
  • Not all states have conformed to the new rules. In states that do not follow the new federal rules, withdrawals to pay for private school are considered non-qualified. Income tax is due on the earnings portion of the withdrawal and any previous income tax deductions or credits claimed may be subject to recapture. California even imposes a 2.5% penalty on withdrawals to pay for private school. Most East Coast states have conformed to the federal rules.
  • States without an income tax will generally follow the federal rules, though there is no state tax benefit, because there is no state income tax.

It’s really important to understand the rules for your state and 529 plan before moving forward.

Impact on financial aid at private schools

Since assets in 529 plans previously were not available before college, financial aid offices in K-12 schools couldn’t consider these accounts. However, now that a portion of 529 plan funds are technically available for private school tuition, it may impact your financial aid package. Discuss the financial aid formula and eligibility with the private school ahead of time to avoid any surprises.

Why Grandparents Should Start a 529 Plan

529 plans and tax benefits

There are two types of benefits to using 529 plans:

  1. State level tax deductions or credits for additions to a 529 plan (if offered), and
  2. Avoiding capital gains taxes annually and for qualified withdrawals (federally and potentially at the state level too)

Depending on where you live and your tax situation, the tax benefits will vary considerably. For example, residents of Indiana could get a tax credit up to $1,000 for contributions to a 529 plan (20% tax credit for contributions up to $5,000). In Massachusetts, married couples can deduct up to $2,000/year in 529 plan contributions. With a flat 5% state tax rate, the savings is only $100.

The capital gains tax savings varies also. In 2021, married couples filing jointly fall into the federal 0% long-term capital gains tax bracket until income exceeds $80,800. For the highest income taxpayers, the top rates are 23.8% with the Medicare surtax. On a state level, California’s top tax bracket for capital gains is 13.3% – the highest in the U.S. States without an income tax also don’t have a capital gains tax.

Should parents use 529 plans to pay for private school?

Maybe, but probably not. If you live in a state that penalizes or recaptures tax benefits stemming from withdrawals to pay for private school, it likely does not make sense. If your child is currently in private school or will be soon, you may not want to invest the money at all. Generally, short-term goals should be kept safe and liquid, not invested in the financial markets.

There’s also an opportunity cost to use funds earlier for private school, and you’ll miss out on future years of tax-free growth. The longer the money has to grow, the greater the benefit of tax-deferred growth. Depending on your cash flow situation, this may also impact your ability to reach your college funding goals if you can’t replenish the account. In this case, you’re making private school affordable by making college harder to pay for.

As you consider your education funding plan, be careful not to over-save in a 529 plan. If your savings exceed the cost of  K-post-graduate, you may have to pay tax plus a 10% penalty on what’s leftover. Given the uncertainty of college costs and investment returns, trying to cover exactly 100% of expenses with a 529 plan is practically impossible. Consider funding your kids’ 529 plan with no more than 75% of the savings goal and pay for the rest by investing the rest in a flexible brokerage account or out of cash flow.

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