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How to protect a child’s education savings from greedy adults

College savings plans
Students pass the library at UC Berkeley. Custodial accounts and trusts have clear rules to prevent an unscrupulous adult from taking a child’s funds.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Dear Liz: I understand that money for children’s college education can be put in a bank account with a parent as the trustee under the theory (I suppose) that the child might make bad decisions. In my case, money that I had worked hard for was put into a custodial account and then used by my parents for “necessary” household expenses. My family was not impoverished. This was a dreadful memory for years, and I’m not the only one. Social Security money for a relative, a child, was lost in a divorce. In another case, money was given to a parent for education, but was used in a failed real estate deal, with the children never realizing the money was meant for them. How can money be invested for a child’s education without it being available to an adult for “necessities”?

Answer: When parents take money that belongs to their children, they may not think of it as stealing. But that’s exactly what it is, legally and, of course, morally. There are clear rules for custodial accounts and trusts that should prevent such self-dealing, but often the child’s only recourse would be to sue the parents. That could make for some awkward Thanksgiving dinners.

There wasn’t much you could have done as a child to prevent the theft. But if you ever want to give money to another child, think carefully about the integrity and ability of the person you’re putting in charge of the money.

First pay attention to how they handle their own money. Someone who’s deeply in debt or living paycheck to paycheck may not have the skills to be a good steward.

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Then ask yourself, “Could I see this person taking the money if they were really hard up for cash or could otherwise justify it to themselves?”

Then pay attention to your gut reaction. If you believe the person has integrity, that doesn’t mean something bad can’t happen, but you’ve certainly reduced the odds. If you have questions, or you don’t know the person well, you may have other options.

For college expenses, you can open a 529 college savings plan, name the child as the beneficiary and continue controlling the account yourself until the money is paid out for college.

This approach can have potentially large financial aid implications if you’re not the parent, so you may need to delay distributions until after the child files his or her last financial aid form. Sites such as SavingForCollege.com have more information about how these plans interact with financial aid.

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A 529 plan probably will be the best option in most situations. Otherwise, you can consult a lawyer about setting up a trust and naming a trustee other than the parents. Trust distributions also can affect financial aid, so you may need to time those carefully.

Working past 70

Dear Liz: If I continue to work after 70, will Social Security taxes still be deducted from my check? I understand my benefits will cap out at 70, so why would I need to still pay into the fund?

Answer: Because Social Security is insurance, not a bank account.

And it may not be true that your benefit maxes out at 70, if you continue to work. It’s true that delayed retirement credits no longer increase your benefit if you delay starting Social Security past age 70. But as long as you continue working, you’re potentially growing your benefit.

Your Social Security check is based on your 35 highest-earning years, adjusted for inflation. If you make more in a current year than you made in one of those previous highest-earning years, the current year will be substituted for the earlier one. That in turn can increase your benefit. This can happen at any age, including after you start benefits.

You might not see much increase, of course, or any increase at all if you’ve earned a high income for a long time. If you exceeded the maximum income limits subject to Social Security taxation every year for 35 years, your benefit wouldn’t increase with additional work. (In 2019, for example, the maximum income limit is $132,900; you don’t pay Social Security tax on earnings above that level, although you continue to pay Medicare tax.)

On the other hand, your benefits won’t be stopped once you collect as much from the system as you paid in. You will continue receiving benefits for as long as you live, even if that amount far exceeds what you’ve paid in taxes. That’s insurance worth paying for.

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.


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