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How a 529 plan can help with education loans after graduation

This photo shows silhouettes of students lined up at a college graduation.
A 529 college savings plan can be used to repay as much as $10,000 in loans for the beneficiary after graduation.
(Associated Press)

Dear Liz: I have a 529 plan for my niece who has now graduated from college. She has student loan debt and would like to use the money left in the 529 account to pay this debt. Is this allowable without incurring penalties?

Answer: Yes, up to $10,000.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act, or SECURE Act, of 2019 allows a beneficiary a lifetime limit of $10,000 to repay the beneficiary’s student loans, including federal and most private loans, without taxes or penalties. You can withdraw an additional $10,000 to repay student loans for each of her siblings.

If there’s still money left in the 529 after that, you have the option of changing the beneficiary to another qualifying family member (including the beneficiary’s spouse, children, siblings, in-laws, aunts and uncles, nieces and cousins, parents and grandparents). You also can change the beneficiary to yourself, as the account owner. Such beneficiary changes preserve your ability to make tax- and penalty-free withdrawals for qualified education expenses.

Starting this year, grandparents get extra incentive: their 529 plans are ignored by federal financial aid formulas.

Giving executors account access

Dear Liz: We are trying to leave our affairs in order for our executors. (Pity them. We have accounts and substantial assets in England and Canada as well as the U.S.!) Thinking of some immediate expenses they will have, I’ve documented details of how to access our accounts online (passwords coded in a way that only a family member will understand). But am I inviting them to do something illegal?

Answer: If a site has a password, then it probably also has a “terms of service” agreement that prohibits you from sharing that password with someone else. You may be able to add someone else’s name to a financial account, but that’s often not desirable, either because you don’t want to give them access in advance of your death or incapacity, or because doing so could have gift tax implications.

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The most practical solution is to create a list of the accounts with your login credentials and make sure your executor knows where to find it. (You probably should have only one executor, by the way, with a couple of backups. This is a big job that grows infinitely more complicated when two or more people have to agree on decisions and sign every document.) You’ll also need to keep the list updated, which can be a big task. A password manager could be a good solution, since your executor would only need to know the master password to access your accounts.

Also make sure your executor has the passwords to your email addresses as well as your computers, tablets and cellphones. Otherwise, the executor might not be able to receive identity-verifying codes and links that allow access to your accounts.

Experts had forecast that COVID-19 would crater Social Security’s finances. They were wrong.

About spousal and survivor benefits

Dear Liz: I am 82 and receive $786 from Social Security. My wife is 75 and receives $1,400 from Social Security. I believe you said that a lower beneficiary could get the same amount as the higher beneficiary. When I contacted Social Security, I was informed that my benefit needed to be less than half of my spouse’s in order to qualify. When I asked him where in the regulations I could find that information, he abruptly hung up. Was he right?

Answer: Yes. The only time you would get the same amount as your wife is if she died, and at that point you would get only the survivor benefit (one check for $1,400, instead of the two checks totaling $2,186 you receive now as a couple).

Survivor benefits are different from spousal benefits. Spousal benefits are what you might receive while your wife is alive. Spousal benefits can be as much as 50% of the higher earner’s “primary insurance amount,” or what she was entitled to at her full retirement age. If your retirement benefit is larger than that spousal benefit amount, you would get your own benefit rather than the spousal benefit.

The Social Security site has plenty of information on how benefits work as well as calculators to help you estimate your benefits. You can start by reading its publication titled “Retirement Benefits” at https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10035.pdf.

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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