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Choosing a College Savings Plan

Nov 9, 2007
There are two basic types of tax-free college savings plans, the Coverdell educational savings account and the 529 savings account. Each has advantages and disadvantages depending on the situation of the individual family.

529 college savings plans allow parents, and in some cases grandparents and other family members, to contribute tax-deferred money to a savings account earmarked for college. The money gains tax-free interest and there is no tax assessed on the principle if it is withdrawn to cover eligible college expenses. The current tax rules will be in effect until 2010, but even if Congress does not reauthorize that section of the tax code, tax will still only be applied to the earnings on the account, not the principle.

Every state now offers a 529 plan and some offer more than one type. For example, some states like Florida offer prepaid plans that lock in today's tuition rates and also offer traditional savings plans. It is a misconception that signing up for a state-run college savings program requires your child to attend college in that state. All states have reciprocal agreements allowing participants to choose from a huge number of colleges all over the country. If you have chosen a prepaid plan, however, your child will only receive tuition at the rate you agreed to when you signed up regardless of what college they attend.

Coverdell education savings accounts work in a similar way to Roth IRA accounts. Parents can deposit after-tax income into an account to save for college or private school (one of the unique benefits of a Coverdell account). Any interest on the account is tax-free if withdrawn for eligible educational expenses. However, unlike 529 plans, Coverdell accounts are capped at $2,000 per child. Even if the child has accounts established by grandparents or other family members, the total invested in the child's name cannot exceed $2,000. For this reason, many families choose both a 529 plan and a Coverdell plan.

Also, since Coverdell accounts are held in the child's name, any funds not used for college will eventually be distributed to your child, not back to you. This is the opposite of 529 college savings accounts which are held in the parent's name and can be transferred to other family members.

Finally, the rules covering 529 plans are easier to understand than those covering Coverdell accounts. Families considering opening a Coverdell account should consider consulting with a tax professional to be sure they understand all the rules and tax implications.
About the Author
Jonathon Hardcastle writes articles on many topics including Finance, Real Estate, and Business
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