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Tips for Avoiding the 529 Withdrawal Penalty

By LeeMarie Kennedy · March 16, 2022 · 7 minute read

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Tips for Avoiding the 529 Withdrawal Penalty

There are typically no withdrawal penalties associated with leaving leftover funds in a 529 plan after college. In fact, 529 plans allow you to withdraw up to $10,000 per year, per student.

But still, the earnings portion of a non-qualified 529 plan distribution can be subject to income tax and a 10% penalty for 529 withdrawal.

Keep reading to learn more about what a 529 plan withdrawal penalty is, which 529 withdrawal penalty exceptions exist, and a few other college financing options for students and parents without 529 plans.

What Is a 529 Plan?

A 529 plan is a college savings investment account that comes with unique tax benefits if it’s used to pay for qualified education expenses. It can help cover the costs of a beneficiary attending college, K-12 school, an apprenticeship program or even to pay back student loans.

When someone uses a 529 plan to save up for college, the funds generally have little impact on their ability to receive financial aid.

In addition, there are several other benefits to using a 529 plan:

•   Funds in the account are invested and grow over time

•   Depending on the type of 529 plan, beneficiaries can prepay for college in advance to lock in current tuition prices before they go up

•   529 college savings accounts are listed as assets when the beneficiary applies for Federal Student Aid

•   Certain 529 plans let beneficiaries deduct their contributions on their state income taxes

•   529 plan contributions can be considered “completed gifts” to the beneficiary, allowing families to use them as estate planning vehicles. For 2021, the annual gift tax exclusion can be applied up to $15,000 per donor, per beneficiary and in 2022 the annual exclusion is $16,000.

What Are Qualified 529 Plan Distributions?

Let’s start with the education expenses that are considered qualified within a 529 plan:

•   Tuition and associated fees

•   Room and board (if the student is enrolled at least half-time)

•   Books

•   Technological equipment and computers

•   Equipment for special needs

•   Student loan payments

•   Up to $10,000 per year, per beneficiary in eligible K-12 expenses

•   Apprenticeship program tuition and fees

•   Up to $10,000 in K-12 tuition expenses (per year, per beneficiary)

Recommended: Using Student Loans for Living Expenses and Housing

What Are Non-Qualified 529 Plan Distributions

Non-qualified 529 plan distributions describe any portion of a plan withdrawal in which the funds were not used to pay for qualified education expenses like the ones listed above.

As such, here are some of the education expenses that are considered non-qualified:

•   Costs associated with transportation

•   Costs associated with college application and testing

•   Costs associated with extracurricular activities

•   Health insurance costs

•   Any cost that doesn’t fall under the umbrella of the qualified education expenses listed above

Are Distributions Taxable?

Generally, contributions can be withdrawn tax-free, because taxes are paid at the time of contribution. The earnings portion (the money earned from investments) of a non-qualified 529 program plan distribution could be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty on top of any associated income taxes that may be due. It would be taxable to whomever received the payment, whether that’s the account owner or the designated beneficiary.

If the non-qualified distribution is not paid out to either the designated beneficiary or the eligible educational institution, it’s assumed to have been given to the account owner who will be subject to the 10% withdrawal penalty and tax.

What Is a 529 Early Withdrawal Penalty?

A 529 early withdrawal penalty occurs when investment gains are withdrawn from a 529 account before the beneficiary incurs any qualifying expenses, or if they withdraw funds for any of the non-qualified reasons listed above.

When this happens, the IRS can assess a steep early withdrawal penalty of 10%.

In California, an extra 2.5% state income tax penalty is imposed on the earnings portion of non-qualified 529 plan distributions.

Can I Make a Withdrawal From 529 Without Penalty?

In certain cases, it’s possible to execute a withdrawal from 529 without penalty, such as if:

•   A plan beneficiary passes away, becomes disabled or decides to attend a U.S. Military Academy

•   A family must pay income tax on a portion of their 529 withdrawal due to their claiming the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC) or the Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC)

•   A plan beneficiary receives certain other types of educational assistance, such as a scholarship exception

529 Withdrawal Penalty Exceptions

Here are a couple of circumstances in which a 529 withdrawal penalty may not apply to a non-qualified distribution.

Scholarship

It may come as a surprise to learn that the 10% 529 early withdrawal penalty doesn’t apply when a beneficiary no longer needs to use their 529 funds because they received a scholarship.

This particular 529 withdrawal penalty exception allows funds to be withdrawn from the 529 plan without penalty up to the amount of the scholarship itself.

While this is one way to avoid a penalty for 529 withdrawal, account owners will still owe taxes on the earnings after the initiation of the withdrawal if they are used on non-qualified expenses.

Death or Disability of Account Beneficiary

If the 529 account beneficiary passes away, the withdrawal fees are generally waived.

The additional fee is also generally waived in the event that the designated beneficiary becomes disabled. According to the IRS, someone is considered disabled if they are able to prove that they are unable to participate in any significant gainful activity due to a physical or mental condition.

Recommended: Student Loan Disability Discharge Eligibility

Beneficiary Enrolls in a US Service Academy

If the designated beneficiary enrolls in a U.S. service academy, such as the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis. Note that the exception to the withdrawal fee only applies so long as the distribution amount does not exceed the cost of attendance as defined by the IRS.

Time Limit

There’s a decent amount of debate around the timing of a 529 plan distribution when it’s based on a scholarship. There are no clear instructions from Congress or the IRS, which means tax professionals and other financial experts may vary in their guidance. If you have specific questions, consider consulting with a tax professional who can provide a personalized recommendation.

What if My Child Doesn’t Go to College?

If you’re a parent who’s saving for your child’s college tuition and they don’t decide to go to college, there are certain specifications and limitations around what else the 529 funds can be used for.

For example, in some states, 529 funds can be used to cover K-12 expenses or professional schools.

That said, if the beneficiary decides to take a gap year to travel or join the armed forces, the funds can’t be withdrawn for personal use by the parents for something like a major renovation.

Still, there are a few ways to take advantage of 529 savings when the intended dependent doesn’t want to attend a college or university:

Changing the Beneficiary

In instances where the account owner has more than one dependent, they may be able to change the beneficiary of the existing 529 plan from one child to another. All they need to do is fill out the associated paperwork, which can typically be found on the 529 plan provider’s website, or give them a call and have them send it in the mail.

Apprenticeships

In 2019, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act expanded the scope of qualified educational expenses for 529 plans to include student loan repayment and registered apprenticeships.

If an apprenticeship is registered and certified with the U.S. Secretary of Labor , it is considered a qualified higher education expense and, as such, associated program fees, supplies, books and equipment may be considered qualified higher education expenses as well.

Recommended: What Is an Apprenticeship? Do They Pay? Pros & Cons

Repay Student Loans

As briefly mentioned above, student loan repayment is now included as a qualified education expense for 529 plans. Under the SECURE Act, it is possible to use a lifetime maximum of $10,000 from a 529 plan to pay down student loan debt. This money can be used to repay student loan debt that belongs to the 529 plan account holder, their spouse, children, or grandchildren.

Other College Financing Options

If you or a dependent missed the boat on setting aside funds in a 529 college savings plan, there are still plenty of options to secure financial support.

If you’re looking for another way to pay for your child’s college education, you might consider:

•   Federal student loans. There are many types of federal student loans funded by the federal government and, in order to qualify, you must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) form every year you want to receive federal student loans. Federal loans offer an array of flexible payment options, the ability to earn student loan forgiveness, and the option to defer payments or put the loan into forbearance.

•   Parent Plus loans. A Parent Plus Loan is a federally funded student loan that can be taken out by parents to help their undergraduate dependents pay for college. There are no annual or lifetime borrowing limits and, with the Parent Plus Loan Forgiveness Program, borrowers are eligible for an income-contingent repayment plan or relief from the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. There is no federal program that allows for parents to transfer a parent plus loan to the student.

•   Private student loans. A private loan for students can help cover the cost of a college education based on the borrower’s credit score and can be obtained from a variety of private lenders.

When you opt for a private student loan with SoFi, you can check your rate instantly, apply in minutes and there are no hidden fees. While private student loans can help fill funding gaps for students who are paying for college, they don’t always offer the same borrower benefits or protections as federal student loans, such as the option to pursue Public Service Loan Forgiveness or deferment options. For this reason, they are generally borrowed only after all sources of financing have been thoroughly reviewed.

Recommended: A Guide to Unclaimed Scholarships and Grants

The Takeaway

A 529 plan is a college savings investment account that comes with unique tax benefits if it’s used to pay for qualified education expenses. Qualified expenses include tuition, fees, school supplies, room and board, and non-qualified expenses include health insurance, extra-curricular activities and fees for applications and testing — to name a few.

When someone withdraws funds from their 529 plan for non-qualified expenses, they are subject to a 10% early withdrawal penalty but, in some cases, there are 529 withdrawal penalty exceptions, i.e., when a plan beneficiary passes away, claims a specific tax credit or receives a scholarship.

In cases where a dependent decides not to go to college, 529 plan account owners have the option to change the plan beneficiary to another dependent, use the funds for a dependent’s apprenticeship or cover K-12 expenses.

Other college financing options like federal student loans, Parent Plus Loans or private student loans are all available.

Find out more about private student loan options available from SoFi.

Photo credit: iStock/FG Trade


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Tax Information: This article provides general background information only and is not intended to serve as legal or tax advice or as a substitute for legal counsel. You should consult your own attorney and/or tax advisor if you have a question requiring legal or tax advice.
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