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Why a college savings plan might make a great baby gift

Royce Hall on the UCLA campus
An education savings plan is a good way to invest in a child’s future. Starting in 2024, money not needed for education can be transferred to a Roth IRA.
(Francine Orr / Los Angeles Times)
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Dear Liz: Recently my granddaughter gave birth to twins. I’d like to put $500 into a trust for each of them to mature when they are 18. I’m hesitant to set up an education fund in case they decide not to go on to college. I would like something that includes growth and safety, the least amount of cost and minimal tax consequences. Is there something you could recommend?

Answer: A trust would be overkill, given the relatively modest amount you have to contribute. Consider instead setting up 529 college savings plans, which provide the benefits you’re seeking, including some flexibility in how the money is spent.

The money you contribute can be invested to grow tax-deferred. Withdrawals are tax-free when used for qualified education expenses, which include costs at vocational and technical schools as well as colleges and universities. In addition, up to $10,000 per year can be used for private school tuition for kindergarten through 12th grade. If a beneficiary doesn’t use the money in their account, the balance can be transferred to another close relative. The account owner (you) also can withdraw the money at any time. You would pay taxes on any earnings plus a relatively modest 10% penalty.

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Legislation passed at the end of last year offers another option: Money that’s not needed for education can be transferred to a Roth IRA, starting in 2024. After an account has been open at least 15 years, the beneficiary can start rolling money into a Roth. The amount rolled over can’t exceed the annual contribution limit (which in 2023 is $6,500), and the lifetime limit for rollovers is $35,000.

These plans are offered by the states and operated by various investment companies. You can learn more at the College Savings Plan Network.

Checking survivor benefit eligibility

Dear Liz: I was widowed at 44, when my children were 10 and 12. I received Social Security benefits for myself and for them for a time. I then went back to work. I started taking Social Security at 65 even though I continued working until 70. I hear a lot about widows’ benefits and wonder whether I would be eligible. I need the funds.

Answer: Call Social Security at (800) 772-1213 and ask whether your survivor benefit, based on your husband’s work record, is greater than the benefit you’re receiving. If it is, you’ll get the larger of the two benefits, rather than both of them. If it’s not, you’ll continue to get your own benefit.

You first qualified for survivor benefits because you were caring for a deceased worker’s minor children. Your benefit probably ended when the younger child turned 16, although the children could continue receiving checks until they turned 18 or graduated from high school, whichever occurred later.

Otherwise, survivor benefits are typically available at age 60, although the amount available is reduced if you start benefits before your own full retirement age (which used to be 65 but is currently between 66 and 67). Also, benefits started before full retirement age are subject to the earnings test, which withholds $1 for every $2 earned over a certain amount ($21,240 in 2023).

When you applied for Social Security at 65, the agency may have compared the benefit you earned on your own record with the survivor benefit you were eligible for based on your late husband’s record, and given you the larger of the two. If not, ask them to make the comparison now and see if you’d be better off.

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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