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This 529 college savings plan has a problem: no kids

College graduation
The IRS has rules for reporting when a beneficiary is changed on a 529 college savings plan, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be hit with taxes.
(Gretchen Ertl / Associated Press)

Dear Liz: When I found out I could save for my future children by enrolling in a 529 college savings plan and not pay taxes on the growth, I started doing that three years ago. Since then I got married, and my wife decided to get an MBA. I have $41,000 saved away for my currently nonexistent children. Am I able to transfer that money to my wife and use it to pay for her MBA without getting penalties?

Answer: Yes.

The beneficiary of your 529 plan is not actually your unborn children, since you can’t open these plans for nonexistent kids. When you started the account and were asked for the beneficiary’s Social Security number, you probably provided your own.

That could have created a small problem down the road when you did have kids because changing the beneficiary to someone one generation removed — from parent to child, for example — is technically making a gift, and gifts in excess of $15,000 per recipient per year are supposed to be reported to the IRS using a gift tax return. Fortunately, you wouldn’t actually owe any gift tax until you’d given away several million dollars above that annual limit.

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By contrast, changing the beneficiary to a family member in the same generation — from yourself to a spouse, for example — is not considered a gift and wouldn’t trigger the need to file a gift tax return.

Adding a child as a credit card user

Dear Liz: I’ve read that adding a child as an authorized user on your credit card could help build his or her credit history. But I was specifically told that this was not the case, as the child’s Social Security number was not primary.

Answer: Whoever told you may not have understood how authorized user activity typically is reported, or may have been talking about a specific issuer’s policy.

Adding someone as an authorized user to a credit card typically results in the history for that card being added to the authorized user’s credit report. That in turn can help the authorized user build credit history and improve his or her credit scores.

Some smaller issuers, such as credit unions or regional banks, may not report authorized user activity to the three credit bureaus, but all of the major credit card companies do. Some of these big issuers, however, don’t report the information if the authorized user is younger than a certain age or if the information is negative. The age cutoff varies by issuer. For American Express and Wells Fargo, for example, it’s 18; for Barclays, it’s 16 and for Discover, it’s 15. Other major issuers don’t have an age cutoff. American Express and U.S. Bank also won’t report to the authorized user’s credit file if the account is delinquent.

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The credit bureaus, in turn, have their own policies. TransUnion includes whatever the issuers report. Equifax adds the information to the credit report if the authorized user is at least 16. Experian adds the information supplied by the issuers, regardless of age, but will remove it if the original account becomes “derogatory” — which typically means payments are skipped or the account is charged off.

If you want to help a child build credit by adding the child as an authorized user, you’ll want to make sure you’re adding him or her to a card that will actually do some good. A quick call to the issuer can help you find out its policy on reporting authorized user activity.

Rules about a dead ex’s pension

Dear Liz: My ex-spouse passed away recently. She had a pension, and I got 25% of the monthly amount (we had a Qualified Domestic Relations Order to divide the pension). I am now the survivor, but I still get the same amount every month. Shouldn’t I be getting what she received?

Answer: Pensions for survivors don’t always increase when the primary worker dies, and sometimes they go away entirely.

That makes them different from Social Security, where a surviving spouse would get the larger of the two checks a couple received. A qualifying divorced spouse may also qualify to get a Social Security check equal to what the deceased was getting.

What happens to the pension probably depends on the details of your QDRO. Pension companies don’t always give survivors accurate information, so check with your lawyer to see what is supposed to happen according to your agreement.

Liz Weston, certified financial planner, is a personal finance columnist for Nerdwallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com. Distributed by No More Red Inc.


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