Over the last few years, there have been a number of policy changes related to 529 plans due to the introduction of the PATH Act, Tax Cuts & Jobs Act, SECURE Act, and CARES Act.

Here is a high level overview of each policy change and the corresponding benefits to 529 plan owners and their beneficiaries.

  • PATH Act 2015: Tax-free/penalty-free recontribution of refunds to 529 plans.
  • Tax Cuts and Jobs Act 2017: 529 funds can be spent on K-12 tuition up to an annual allowance of $10,000.
  • SECURE Act 2019: 529 funds can be spent on student loan repayments up to a lifetime allowance of $10,000 and on apprenticeship programs (trade school & vocational programs).
  • CARES Act 2020: Temporary suspension of federal student loan payments with 0% interest until September 30, 2021.

Policy Changes and 529 Plan Implications 

Now, let’s take a closer look at each policy’s 529 plan implications.

Protecting Americans from Tax Hikes (PATH) Act - 2015

The PATH Act of 2015 allows for the refund of payments made to colleges from 529 plans to be recontributed to a 529 plan account owner or beneficiary. Due to COVID-19, many colleges have begun refunding room and board, tuition, and other fees, and this law is proving to be extremely beneficial.

  • Recontributing a Refund to a 529 Plan: Here are some important points to consider.
    • No taxes or penalties are paid if the recontribution is within 60 days of the date of the refund. If not, refunds will be considered non-qualified distributions and are subject to income taxes at the beneficiary’s rate and a 10% penalty.
    • econtributions are not counted against the beneficiary’s overall plan contribution limits, which typically range from $235,000 to $529,000 depending on state laws.
    • If any part of the refund is for non-qualified education expenses, any recontribution to the 529 plan would be treated as a new contribution subject to the annual gift limit of $15,000 for 2021 and overall plan contributions limits.
    • The entire recontribution is treated as principal as opposed to a mix of principal and interest.
    • The amount recontributed to the 529 plan cannot exceed the amount of the refund.
    • Refunds must be recontributed to a 529 plan for the same beneficiary, but does not need to be recontributed to the same 529 plan account from which it was distributed.
    • Refunds may be directed toward other qualified higher education expenses in the same tax year. For example, a refund of room and board expenses can be used toward buying a computer or paying for internet, since many colleges are moving classes online.
    • Coupon refunds (vouchers or credits) from educational institutions are not considered cash refunds.Therefore, coupon refunds cannot be recontributed to a 529 plan and do not cause the associated 529 plan distribution to become non-qualified.
  • Remember to take the following steps to ensure the recontribution is not treated as a regular contribution, which may result in the original withdrawal being treated as a non-qualified withdrawal by the IRS.
    • The account owner must keep track of all the records showing the date of the refund from the eligible educational institution and then its recontribution into the 529 plan.
    • It is important to notify the 529 plan administrator regarding the recontribution of previously withdrawn funds and to confirm that the refunded amount is compliant with the 60-day deadline.
    • Consider verification of whether you need to detail the account number of the 529 account from which the withdrawal was initiated, along with the date and amount of the withdrawal.

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) - 2017

  • Allowance for K-12 education expenses: 529 plans can be used to pay for up to $10,000 of annual tuition expenses to attend public, private, or religious elementary and secondary schools. This annual allowance is per student and not per account.

Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (Secure) Act - 2019

The SECURE Act is intended to encourage better savings habits and help Americans achieve financial security. Here are the key changes to 529 plans.

  • Student Loan Repayments: 529 plan holders with any remaining 529 balance can make tax-free withdrawals towards student loan repayments for themselves, their siblings, children, grandchildren, or spouses. However, there is an aggregate lifetime limit of $10,000 in qualified student loan repayments per plan beneficiary and another $10,000 for each of the beneficiary’s siblings. For instance, a family with two children can take out a maximum of $20,000 to pay down student loans. Since there are no age or time limits imposed on 529 plans contributions, students, parents, or grandparents may continue contributing to a plan during and/or after college, and then use any remaining 529 plan funds to repay their student loans. The portion of student loan interest that is paid for with tax-free 529 plan earnings is not eligible for the student loan interest deduction when filing your income taxes.
  • Apprenticeship Program Expenses: Tax-free withdrawals can be made from 529 plans for expenses related to trade schools or vocational programs registered with the federal Department of Labor. These programs typically combine on-the-job training with classroom instruction and are less costly compared to traditional colleges. This new law may relieve some families’ concerns about funding a 529 plan if their child decides not to attend a traditional college.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act - 2020

In 2020, in response to COVID-19 the CARES Act was enacted to offer relief to borrowers of federal student loans by temporarily suspending federal student loan payments and reducing the interest rate on these loans to 0% until September 30, 2021.

Know Your 529 Plan's State Laws 

While these acts made changes to federal laws, it is important to understand your state’s interpretation of these new laws to avoid any issues that may arise by incorrectly timing a distribution and inadvertently incurring any state-level taxes and penalties. Your Janney Financial Advisor can help you understand how the changes to 529 plan policies can help you and your family reach your education planning goals.

Working with Janney 

Depending on your financial needs and personal preferences, you may opt to engage in a brokerage relationship, an advisory relationship or a combination of both. Each time you open an account, we will make recommendations on which type of relationship is in your best interest based on the information you provide when you complete or update your client profile.

When you engage in an advisory relationship, you will pay an asset-based fee which encompasses, among other things, a defined investment strategy, ongoing monitoring, and performance reporting. Your Financial Advisor will serve in a fiduciary capacity for your advisory accounts. For more information about Janney, please see Janney’s Relationship Summary (Form CRS) on www.janney.com/crs, which details all material facts about the scope and terms of our relationship with you and any potential conflicts of interest.

By establishing a relationship with a Janney Financial Advisor, we can build a tailored financial plan and make recommendations about solutions that are aligned with your best interest and unique needs, goals, and preferences.

Contact us today to discuss how we can put a plan in place designed to help you reach your financial goals.

Janney Montgomery Scott LLC, its affiliates, and its employees are not in the business of providing tax, regulatory, accounting, or legal advice. These materials and any tax-related statements are not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used or relied upon, by any taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding tax penalties. Any such taxpayer should seek advice based on the taxpayer’s particular circumstances from an independent tax advisor.


About the author

Zane Byramji

UIT & Closed-End Fund Specialist

Read more from Zane Byramji

For more information about Janney, please see Janney’s Relationship Summary (Form CRS) on www.janney.com/crs which details all material facts about the scope and terms of our relationship with you and any potential conflicts of interest.

To learn about the professional background, business practices, and conduct of FINRA member firms or their financial professionals, visit FINRA’s BrokerCheck website: http://brokercheck.finra.org/