YOUR PRACTICE-Selling grandparents on the perks of 529 college savings plans

CHICAGO, July 18 Fri Jul 18, 2014 8:00am EDT

CHICAGO, July 18 (Reuters) - Many grandparents want to help their grandchildren pay for college, but don't know the best ways to do that. Financial advisers who can show them how to make those contributions and reap financial advantages for themselves can shine.

Nearly half of grandparents expect to contribute to their grandkids' college savings, with more than a third expecting to give $50,000 or more, according to a 2014 Fidelity Investments study. That generosity can also be channeled toward significant tax and estate planning benefits for the grandparents.

Enter the 529 plan, a college savings investment account that provides tax-free growth as long as the money is put toward tuition and most types of college expenses such as fees and books. What's more, grandparents can score their own financial perks, said Matt Golden, vice president of college savings for Fidelity Financial Advisor Solutions.

Grandparents can use 529 accounts to reap tax deductions or reduce the value of their taxable estates.

Furthermore, 529 plans have limits that might be comforting for grandparents who worry that their grandchildren might spend the money frivolously, or that they might end up needing it themselves. Grandchildren must use the funds only for certain college expenses, such as tuition and books. What's more, grandparents can keep the money if they need it, subject to penalties and taxes, say advisers.

WORKING THE ANGLES

Conversations with clients about these issues can build trust, said Charles Wareham, a Hartford, Connecticut-based adviser specializing in college funding strategies. Wareham's firm holds Sunday brunches for parents and grandparents to teach them about college funding. The events have become relationship-builders, he said.

One way to showcase 529 accounts is by highlighting their advantages over other savings strategies.

"Many grandparents give EE bonds for holidays and birthdays, which can hurt more than help as far as tax purposes," says Wareham.

For example, grandchildren who receive Series EE bonds as birthday gifts can later be socked with federal income taxes on the interest if they don't use the funds for college, according to the U.S. Department of Treasury.

A 529 plan, in contrast, provides for tax-free distributions for college. It also allows grandparents to give the funds to another grandchild if the intended recipient does not go to college or need the money.

Grandparents may also be eligible for state income tax deductions when they make 529 contributions - they are available in 34 states and the District of Columbia, according to FinAid, a website about financial aid. They can also take required minimum distributions from their IRA accounts and transfer those funds to the 529 plan, where they can continue to grow tax-deferred, Fidelity's Golden says.

Savvy advisers can compare plans from various states and help their clients find the best ones, though usually tax breaks are only available to people who invest in their own state's plan.

A 529 plan is also a unique way for grandparents to reduce the value of their estates: they can contribute up to five years' worth of allowable gifts in one year without triggering federal gift taxes. That means clients filing jointly can invest $140,000 in one lump sum per grandchild.

One caveat: 529 accounts could make a grandchild ineligible for financial aid, says Golden. That is because the money, once withdrawn for the beneficiary, counts as income that schools use to determine financial aid awards. But grandparents can avoid the problem by waiting until the recipient's junior or senior year to hand over the money, when students may not need as much aid, Golden says. (Reporting by Suzanne Barlyn; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)