Beyond Saving for College: 529 Plans as Strategic Legacy Planning Tools for High Earners

Dan Pascone |

Superfunding a 529 plan isn’t just about saving for your kid’s college—it’s a strategic financial move for high earners to maximize tax benefits, reduce estate size, and boost investment growth if the timing is right. 

With superfunding, you can significantly accelerate your child's educational fund by contributing up to five times the annual gift tax exclusion ($18,000) in a single year—$90,000 for individuals or $180,000 for couples in 2024—without triggering federal gift taxes. 

This approach speeds up funding and offers substantial estate planning advantages by reducing your taxable estate, which is crucial for those potentially subject to estate taxes. 

However, it's important to note that superfunding may not be suitable for everyone, and there are potential risks and downsides to consider.

Superfunding also allows your investments to grow in a tax-advantaged environment: contributions are made with after-tax dollars, grow tax-free, and withdrawals for qualified educational expenses are tax-exempt. This ensures more funds go towards educational costs than if they were grown in a taxable account.

Additional incentives, such as deductions or credits for 529 contributions, can further reduce taxable income for those in states with high taxes. 

If your superfunding interest is piqued, let’s explore how this comprehensive strategy helps you invest in your children’s future education and set the stage for estate planning. 

A Brief Intro to 529 Plans

The 529 plan, formerly known as a "qualified tuition plan," was created in 1996. Named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, which specifies the plan’s tax benefits, it was designed to encourage saving for future college costs.

It has since evolved to include not just college expenses but also K-12 education expenses and, more recently, apprenticeship programs.

There are several compelling reasons for contributing to a 529 instead of just saving to pay education expenses out of pocket, primarily revolving around tax benefits and flexibility. 

For starters, you contribute after-tax dollars into a 529, and your investments grow tax-free. This means you won't pay any taxes on the plan's returns as they stack up, leaving you and your kid more money when it’s time to pay for educational expenses. 

You can start withdrawing funds from a 529 plan to pay for your child's qualified educational expenses as soon as those expenses occur. This means you can make withdrawals as soon as your child begins attending a school or program where the costs qualify under the rules of the 529 plan.

The withdrawals are also tax-free as long as they are used for qualified educational expenses, such as tuition, mandatory fees, books, supplies, and certain room and board costs. 

This can be a substantial difference compared to post-tax dollars grown in a taxable account. 

For readers in states with high state taxes, you may have additional incentives such as deductions or credits for contributing to a 529 plan, typically if you contribute to your home state’s plan. This can further reduce your taxable income, offering another layer of tax savings not available when paying directly from a bank account.

If your state doesn’t have a state income tax to reduce (Florida, Wyoming, Texas, etc), you won’t reduce your taxable income with the contributions. However, you still have a powerful tax-advantaged and flexible account at your disposal. 

529 plans offer a unique estate planning advantage, as contributions to a 529 plan are considered gifts for tax purposes. In 2024, the IRS will allow an annual gift tax exclusion of $18,000 per donor per beneficiary. 

With “superfunding,” 529 plans allow five years' worth of gifts to be made at once (up to $90,000 in 2024) per beneficiary without triggering the gift tax, provided no other gifts are made to the same beneficiary during the five years. 

529 plans typically have very high contribution limits, often over $300,000 per beneficiary, which makes them attractive for high earners who wish to save significant amounts for educational expenses. 

These limits vary by state, so it's essential to check the specifics of your state’s plan.

Annual 529 Contribution Limits in 2024

Specifically, with superfunding, you can contribute up to five times the annual exclusion amount for each beneficiary in a single year

In 2024, the annual gift tax exclusion amount is $18,000, meaning an individual could contribute up to $90,000 (five times the annual exclusion amount) in a single year for each beneficiary. 

So, for example, let’s say you have ten children, and you decide to superfund a 529 plan for each of them. You could indeed contribute up to $900,000 in total in a single year (10 beneficiaries x $90,000 each). 

This amount doubles for married couples who choose to split their gifts, allowing them to contribute up to $180,000 ($18,000 x 2 donors x 5 years) collectively to a beneficiary's 529 plan in 2024. To split gifts, each spouse must file a gift tax return, even if the total amount of the gifts is less than the annual exclusion. This allows them to take advantage of the full annual exclusion amount. 

How to Superfund a 529

Think of superfunding a 529 plan, like planting a money tree for your child's education, except instead of starting from a tiny seed, you start with a fully-grown sapling. 

You're setting roots deep now so you can watch it grow and blossom just in time for their college years or whatever future expansions the plans may hold. 

  1. Open a 529 Plan: Start by selecting a 529 plan from a financial institution or through a state-sponsored program. Evaluate each plan's investment options, fees, and specific tax advantages to find the best fit for your needs

  2. Make a Contribution: After setting up your 529 plan, contribute a large lump sum, ensuring it does not exceed the maximum amount permitted by the IRS for superfunding.

  3. File a Gift Tax Return: If your contribution exceeds the annual gift tax exclusion ($18,000 per beneficiary in 2024), submit IRS Form 709. This form informs the IRS that you are utilizing the option to spread the gift tax exclusion over five years, which avoids any immediate gift tax liability.

  4. Invest the Funds: Choose how to invest your contribution within the plan. Consider your risk tolerance and the time until the funds are needed, selecting from the available investment options that align with your financial goals.

  5. Monitor and Manage the Account: Regularly review the account’s performance and adjust the investments as necessary to align with changing market conditions and your financial strategy. Maintaining oversight will ensure the plan remains on track to meet educational funding goals.

Keep nurturing it with attention and adjustments as necessary; you'll be set for a blooming future. 

Getting started with superfunding a 529 is relatively straightforward, but it does require clarifying a holistic view of your financial picture, especially when it comes to making large lump-sum contributions. Schedule a free, no-pressure Financial Analysis to set the stage for your family's educational and financial success—no gimmicks, just guidance. 

Superfunding Considerations 

While superfunding a 529 plan comes with a host of shiny perks, it's not all rainbows and unicorns; a few thorns among the roses include the Five-Year Rule, gift tax limitations, and non-qualified withdrawal penalties.

The Five-Year Rule 

The Five-Year Rule basically says if you die within five years of making that generous contribution, a chunk of that cash might boomerang back into your taxable estate. 

No one really plans on shuffling off the mortal coil, but this detail is particularly relevant for grandparents looking to streamline their legacies. 

Gift Tax Exclusions and Amounts

There's also a cap on generosity; crossing the line with contributions exceeding the allowable gift exclusion limits could trigger a tax event.

For 2024, the annual gift tax exclusion amount is going up to $18,000 per recipient. This means that an individual can give up to $18,000 to another person within the year without having to pay any gift tax or even report the gift to the IRS. 

The lifetime gift tax exclusion amount for 2024 is $13.61 million (up from $12.92 million in 2023), meaning individuals can give away up to $13.61 million over the course of their lifetime without incurring a federal gift tax, which can range between 18% to 40%, depending on the total amount given.

Non-Qualified Withdrawal Penalties

Misusing the funds for non-educational splurges will cause the IRS to come knocking for their share. 

Non-qualified withdrawals mean that the earnings part of your stash gets hit with income tax plus a punitive 10% penalty. 

However, starting in 2024, you can smooth over some of those rough edges by rolling up to $35,000 into a beneficiary’s Roth IRA if the 529 plan has been around for at least 15 years. It’s a neat trick for when plans change but the savings must go on.

Making Cents of Superfunding 529 Plans

In a nutshell, superfunding a 529 plan harnesses the power of upfront, lump-sum contributions to magnify the growth potential of educational funds, thanks to a nifty IRS rule that lets individuals contribute up to five times the annual gift tax exclusion in one go. 

In 2024, the annual gift tax exclusion amount is $18,000, meaning an individual could contribute up to $90,000 (five times the annual exclusion amount) in a single year for each beneficiary. For couples, it’s now $180,000 collectively. 

It’s particularly potent if retirement savings avenues like 401(k)s and IRAs are maxed out and the college horizon spans over a decade, a time frame that could see educational costs soar– as could the value of your 529 investments. 

If we’re thinking longer-term, the benefits of superfunding extend beyond mere savings growth; it’s a strategic estate planning tool that significantly slashes your taxable estate while pouring into a tax-free educational vault for your progeny. 

Yet, superfunding isn’t without its cautions. 

The specter of estate taxes looms if you pass away within five years of the contribution, and any amount over the IRS thresholds might invite the gift tax. 

Additionally, penalties await if the funds stray from their educational purpose, though a new twist allows up to $35,000 to roll over into a Roth IRA under certain conditions from 2024, offering a little flexibility should plans change.

Starting your superfunding journey involves selecting a robust 529 plan through diligent comparison, making a calculated contribution within the gift tax sweet spot, and managing your investment to adapt to changing market landscapes and educational goals. Regular reviews ensure the strategy remains aligned with your financial horizon and estate plans.