How to Pay for Education Expenses With Tax-Free Dollars

Many people are under the mistaken impression that a Roth IRA is the only type of self-directed account from which tax free distributions can be taken.  However, distributions from Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs) can be tax free if they are for qualified expenses.  In this article we will discuss the benefits of the Coverdell Education Savings Account and, more importantly, what investments you can make with a self-directed ESA.
Contributions.  Contributions to a Coverdell ESA may be made until the designated beneficiary reaches age 18, unless the beneficiary is a special needs beneficiary.  The maximum contribution is $2,000 per year per beneficiary (no matter how many different contributors or accounts) and may be made until the contributor’s tax filing deadline, not including extensions (for individuals, generally April 15 of the following year).  The contribution is not tax deductible, but distributions can be tax free, as discussed below.  Contributions may be made to both a Coverdell ESA and a Qualified Tuition Program (a 529 plan) in the same year for the same beneficiary without penalty.
To make a full contribution to a Coverdell ESA, the contributor must have Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) of less than $95,000 for a single individual or $190,000 for a married couple filing jointly.  Partial contributions may be made with MAGI as high as $110,000 for an individual and $220,000 for a married couple filing jointly.  Since there is no limit on who can contribute to a Coverdell ESA, if your MAGI is too high consider making a gift to an individual whose income is less than the limits, and they can make the contribution.  Organizations can make contributions to a Coverdell ESA without any limitation on income.

Tax Free Distributions.  The good news is that distributions from a Coverdell ESA for “qualified education expenses” are tax free.  Qualified education expenses are broadly defined and include qualified elementary and secondary education expenses (K-12) as well as qualified higher education expenses.

Qualified elementary and secondary education expenses can include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, academic tutoring and special needs services for special needs beneficiaries.  If required or provided by the school, it can also include room and board, uniforms, transportation and supplementary items and services, including extended day programs.  Even the purchase of computer technology, equipment or internet access and related services are included if they are to be used by the beneficiary and the beneficiary’s family during any of the years the beneficiary is in elementary or secondary school.

Qualified higher education expenses include required expenses for tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment and special needs services.  If the beneficiary is enrolled at least half-time, some room and board may qualify for tax free reimbursement.  Most interestingly, a Qualified Tuition Program (a 529 plan) can be considered a qualified education expense.  If you believe that contributing to a 529 plan is a good deal, then contributing that money with pre-tax dollars is a great deal!

One thing to be aware of is that the money must be distributed by the time the beneficiary reaches age 30.  If not previously distributed for qualified education expenses, distributions from the account may be both taxable and subject to a 10% additional tax.  Fortunately, if it looks like the money will not be used up or if the child does not attend an eligible educational institution, the money may be rolled over to a member of the beneficiary’s family who is under age 30.  For this purpose, the beneficiary’s family includes, among others, the beneficiary’s spouse, children, parents, brothers or sisters, aunts or uncles, and even first cousins.

Investment Opportunities.  Many people question why a Coverdell ESA is so beneficial when so little can be contributed to it.  For one thing, the gift of education is a major improvement over typical gifts given by relatives to children.  Over a long period of time, investing a Coverdell ESA in mutual funds or similar investments will certainly help towards paying for the beneficiary’s education.  However, clearly the best way to pay for your child’s education is through a self-directed Coverdell ESA.

With a self-directed Coverdell ESA, you choose your ESA’s investments.  Common investment choices for self-directed accounts of all types include real estate, both domestic and foreign, options, secured and unsecured notes, including first and second liens against real estate, C corporation stock, limited liability companies, limited partnerships, trusts and much more.

With the small contribution limits for Coverdell ESAs, you might wonder how these investments can be made.  Often these accounts are combined with other self-directed accounts, including Traditional, Roth, SEP and SIMPLE IRAs, Health Savings Accounts (HSAs) and Individual 401(k) plans, to make a single investment.  For example, I combined my daughters’ Coverdell ESAs with our Roth IRAs to fund a hard money loan with 2 points up front and 12% interest per year.

One client supercharged his daughter’s Coverdell ESA by placing a burned down house under contract in the ESA.  The contract price was for $5,500 and the earnest money deposit was $100.  Since the ESA was the buyer on the contract, the earnest money came from that account.  After depositing the contract with the title company, the client located another investor who specialized in rehabbing burned out houses.  The new investor agreed to pay $14,000 for the property.  At closing approximately one month later, the ESA received a check for $8,500 on its $100 investment.  That is an astounding 8,400% return in only one month!  How many people have done that well in the stock market or with a mutual fund?

But the story gets even better.  Shortly after closing, the client took a TAX FREE distribution of $3,315 to pay for his 10 year old daughter’s private school tuition.  Later that same year he took an additional $4,000 distribution.  Assuming a marginal tax rate of 28%, this means that the client saved more than $2,048 in taxes.  In effect, this is the same thing as achieving a 28% discount on his daughter’s private school tuition which he had to pay anyway!

The Coverdell ESA may be analogized to a Roth IRA, but for qualified education expenses only, in that you receive no tax deduction for contributing the money but qualified distributions are tax free forever.  Investing through a Coverdell ESA can significantly reduce the effective cost of your child or grandchild’s education.  As education costs continue to skyrocket, using the Coverdell ESA as part of your overall investment strategy can be a wise move.  With a self-directed ESA (or a self-directed IRA, 401(k) or HSA for that matter), you don’t have to “think outside the box” when it comes to your ESA’s investments.  You just have to realize that the investment box is much larger than you think!

H. Quincy Long is a Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP) and an attorney.  He is also President of Quest IRA, Inc., with offices in Houston Dallas, Texas.  He may be reached by email at Quincy@QuestIRA.com .  Nothing in this article is intended as tax, legal or investment advice.

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