Tag Archives: MAGI

How Can My Minor Child Have a Roth IRA?

By H. Quincy Long

“How can my minor child have a Roth IRA?” If I only had a million dollars for every time I have been asked this question, I would be a very rich person!  When entrepreneurial people learn of the myriad of possibilities for non-traditional investments within a self-directed IRA, they usually immediately see the benefit of starting on their child’s retirement now in addition to utilizing their own IRAs.  In this article I will discuss the benefits of starting an IRA early, how a minor can qualify for a Roth IRA, the tax filing requirements for a minor with earned income, and what can be done with the IRA once the money is deposited in the account.

First, let me briefly discuss the benefits of starting early on retirement savings.  Assume your 15 year old daughter starts off her Roth IRA with $1,000 from her earnings and adds $1,000 per year until she retires at age 67.  If she can earn an average return of just 10% per year, her tax free Roth IRA will be worth $1,552,472 at retirement – not bad for only investing a total of $52,000 over 52 years.  Contrast this with an individual who starts saving at age 35 and puts $5,000 in for 32 years with the same annual return of 10%.  His Roth IRA will be worth approximately $1,111,253 when he retires at age 67, and his contributions will total $160,000.  No matter what your age and annual return assumptions are, one thing is very clear – the earlier you start saving the better!

Before you get too excited and start writing your IRA custodian or administrator checks to open Roth IRAs for your minor children, you must make sure that they qualify to make a contribution.  In order to contribute to a Roth IRA, a single individual must have earned income (compensation) at least in the amount of the contribution and Adjusted Gross Income of no more than $122,000 (for 2011).  For example, if your daughter earns $1,000 babysitting in 2011, she can contribute a maximum of only $1,000 to her Roth IRA, even though the contribution limit for individuals under age 50 is $5,000.

How can a minor earn money so they qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA?  The younger your child is, the more difficult it will be to justify compensation if the IRS questions the contribution.  I have heard of parents hiring their minor children as a model for advertising purposes in the parents’ trade or business, but if you intend to do this make sure that you actually use the photos in your advertising.  Keep track of how and when you use the photos, and have adequate documentation in your file as to what reasonable compensation would be for a model doing an advertising shoot with unlimited use of the photos.  By the age of 8 or 9 children can be of some use to their parents’ businesses by doing things like cleaning up trash in the yard of rent houses, collating materials if the parent teaches classes, stuffing and stamping envelopes, or other menial tasks.  At age 7 my daughter helped me with artwork to put on t-shirts by carefully writing in crayon “Do you have a self-directed IRA?  I do!”  I then had her wonderful artwork turned into a silk screen for the back of t-shirts with my company logo on the front.  I gave away hundreds of the shirts to my clients.  With the unusual writing on the back of the shirts, people asked a lot of questions about self-directed IRAs and it turned out to be one of my most effective advertising campaigns!  Other ways for minors to earn money include cutting grass, babysitting, or working at restaurants and offices when they are a little older.  If you are hiring your minor children in your own business, be sure that you always document the time spent working and pay them a reasonable wage.  The importance of good records cannot be overstated.

The next questions I get asked when discussing Roth IRAs for minors are “What is the tax effect of my child earning compensation?” and “Does my child have to file a tax return?”  I will briefly summarize the rules here, but always check with your CPA or tax professional.  More information may also be found in IRS Publication 929, Tax Rules for Children and Dependents.  A minor child who is a dependent on someone else’s tax return cannot claim a dependency exemption, but can still claim the standard deduction on their tax return if they are required to file.  The standard deduction for a single dependent minor varies between $950 and $5,700 for 2010, depending on the type and amount of income.  In general, for 2010 a dependent minor must file a tax return if 1) unearned income, such as interest and dividends, was over $950, 2) earned income was over $5,700, or 3) if the minor has both earned income and unearned income, the gross income was more than the larger of $950 or the earned income (up to $5,400) plus $300.  If the dependent minor worked at an employer who withheld income taxes from their paycheck, in most cases they will want to file a return to collect a refund of this amount, even if there was no filing requirement.

There are situations where a dependent minor has to file a tax return regardless of the above filing requirements.  One of the more common circumstances is when the dependent minor has net earnings from self-employment (such as from babysitting or cutting grass) of $400 or more.  Net earnings from self-employment for IRA contribution purposes are calculated by taking the net Schedule C income and subtracting one-half of the self-employment taxes due and the contribution to any self-employment retirement plan such as a SEP IRA.  If this amount is $400 or more, the dependent minor will owe Social Security and Medicare tax on that income and will have to file a tax return to pay the tax.  For example, a recent tax client of mine who was 18 years old and still a dependent on her mother’s tax return earned $3,183 doing clerical work, for which she received a 1099-MISC.  She was not treated as an employee by the person who hired her, and she was required to file a dependent tax return to report this income.  Because her Adjusted Gross Income was below $5,700 she owed no federal income tax.  Unfortunately, she still owed $487 in Social Security and Medicare taxes.  If she had been treated as an employee, the employer would have paid its portion and withheld her portion of the Social Security and Medicare tax from her paycheck.  In that case she would not have had to file a federal tax return, unless she wanted to claim a refund for any federal income taxes withheld.

There is an interesting exception to the requirement that a dependent minor pay Social Security and Medicare tax on their earned income.  If a child under age 18 works in their parent’s trade or business and their parent’s business is either a sole proprietorship or a partnership in which the parents are the only partners, the income is exempt from Social Security and Medicare taxes, as well as federal unemployment taxes (FUTA).  This exception does not apply if the business is incorporated or if the partnership includes persons other than parents.  The exemption is extended to those under age 21 for work other than in a trade or business, such as domestic work in the parent’s private home.  So if a minor earns compensation of less than $5,700 working in their parent’s trade or business or for domestic work in the parent’s private home and they have no other income, no federal income tax or Social Security and Medicare taxes would be due.  This means that no tax return would have to be filed, but they would still qualify to contribute to a Roth IRA up to the amount of their earned income, subject to the $5,000 maximum contribution!  However, just to be safe it may be advisable to go ahead and file a zero tax due return for documentation purposes.  Always check with your CPA or tax advisor to find out if your child will owe state or local income taxes on this income.  More information on the family employee exception to Social Security and Medicare taxes may be found in IRS Publication 15, Circular E, Employer’s Tax Guide, Chapter 3.

What you can do with the money once in a Roth IRA?  The beauty of a self-directed IRA is that even small amounts can be invested in non-traditional investments.  There are at least four ways a small Roth IRA can be invested.  The Roth IRA may be combined with IRAs of other people to make a single investment.  The most IRAs I have seen participate in a single note investment was 10 different accounts, with the smallest IRA investor contributing only $2,000.  That note had a yield of 12% per year!  Another investment which is common in small IRA accounts is an option to buy real estate.  Once you have an option, you may let it lapse, exercise the option and close on the property, sell the option to a third party for a fee if the option agreement allows this, or even release the option for a cancellation fee from the property owner.  Another variation on this idea is for the Roth IRA to enter into a sales contract, then assign that contract to a third party for a fee.  Finally, the IRA could buy a property with a loan, either from taking over the property subject to the seller’s existing financing, negotiating non-recourse seller financing, or obtaining a non-recourse loan from a private party or another non-disqualified IRA.  However, if the IRA either owns debt-financed property or operates a business of any type (including a real estate dealer business), it may be required to file IRS Form 990T and pay Unrelated Business Income Tax (UBIT).  Always be sure and have your child’s IRA pay the taxes if they are due.  It is great to use the tax law to your advantage, but do not abuse the law, because the IRS has what it takes to take what you have.

If your child qualifies, there is no doubt that one of the best things you can do for them is to open a Roth IRA.  Perhaps the best part of this strategy is the time you will spend with your child teaching them the benefits of saving early and the methods of investing their money wisely. This is truly a win-win situation for both you and your child.  Happy investing!

The Saver’s Tax Credit – How to get up to $2,000 FREE from the U.S. Government

By H. Quincy Long

            Tax time is coming, and many of you are considering whether or not to make a 2007 contribution to your Traditional or Roth IRA.  I have good news!  If you are at least 18 years old, you are not a full-time student, you are not claimed as a dependent on another person’s tax return and you meet the income requirements listed below, you are entitled to a tax credit of up to 50% of your contribution to almost any type of retirement plan, including a Roth IRA!  If you then take your refund from the government and put it back into your IRA, your retirement savings will increase by as much as 50%!

            Begun in 2002 as a temporary provision, the saver’s credit was made a permanent part of the tax code as part of the Pension Protection Act of 2006. To help preserve the value of the credit, income limits are now adjusted annually to keep pace with inflation.  To qualify for the Saver’s Tax Credit, you must have Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) within the following limits for 2007:

            Credit              Income for Married     Income for Head of    Income for

            Rate                 Filing Jointly               Household                   Others

            50%                 up to $31,000              up to $23,250              up to $15,500

            20%                 $31,001 to $34,000     $23,251 to $25,500     $15,501 to $17,000

            10%                 $34,001 to $52,000     $25,501 to $39,000     $17,001 to $26,000

            The maximum tax credit allowed for 2007 is $1,000 (with a $2,000 contribution), or up to $2,000 if married filing jointly and each spouse makes a contribution.  Simply attach Form 8880, Credit for Qualified Retirement Savings Contributions, to your income tax return, and you will receive up to a $2,000 tax credit.  A tax credit is a dollar for dollar reduction in your tax bill, as opposed to a tax deduction, which only reduces the amount of money on which you pay income taxes.  You may get more information on this credit from IRS Publication 590.

            To prevent abuse, the IRS has rules which will reduce the amount of contribution which qualifies for the saver’s tax credit if the IRA owner has taken distributions from any eligible employer plan or IRA during a specified testing period.  The testing period includes the two taxable years prior to the year the credit is claimed, plus the taxable year the credit is claimed and the following year up until the tax filing deadline for the year the credit is taken, including extensions.   For example, if Josh contributes $2,000 to his Roth IRA for 2007 but had previously removed $500 from his IRA in 2006 and removes an additional $500 in 2008 before October 15, only $1,000 of his $2,000 Roth IRA contribution for 2007 may be used toward the saver’s tax credit on his 2007 tax return.

            Let me give you an example.  Lucky Larry, a married man, was downsized from his job in the corporate world in December, 2006.  Larry decided that he wanted to be a real estate investor instead of looking for another j-o-b.  Things went fine in 2007, but Larry’s modified adjusted gross income after all of his expenses will be $30,000 due to his various write-offs, and his taxable income after the standard deduction and 2 exemptions will be $13,500.  Therefore his taxes before the tax credit will be $1,353 (see instructions for Form 1040, page 65).  He and his wife contribute $1,353 each to a self-directed Roth IRA at Quest IRA, Inc. which they can use to purchase real estate options, debt-leveraged real estate, and many other things.  Larry and his wife will receive a tax credit of $1,353 (50% of each of their contributions). 

            Although the maximum contribution for purposes of the tax credit is $2,000 each, the tax credit is non-refundable.  This means that the maximum tax credit Larry and his wife can receive is equal to the taxes they would otherwise pay.  With the tax credit, Larry’s income tax for 2007 is ZERO!  Larry and his wife wisely decide to contribute the tax refund back into their Quest IRA, Inc. self-directed Roth IRAs.  Each Roth IRA grows by 50% to $2,029.50 absolutely FREE, courtesy of the United States government!

Do Roth Conversions Make Sense? How to Analyze the 2010 Roth Conversion Opportunity

By: H. Quincy Long           

            How would you like to have tax free income when you retire?  Would you like to have the ability to leave a legacy of tax free income to your heirs when you die?  The great news is that there is a way to achieve these goals – it is through a Roth IRA.

            Historically, because of income limits for contributions to a Roth IRA and for converting a Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA, high income earners have not been able to utilize this incredible wealth building tool.  Fortunately, the conversion rules are changing so that almost anyone, regardless of their income level, can have a Roth IRA.  But is it really worth converting your Traditional IRA into a Roth IRA and paying taxes on the amount of your conversion if you are in a high tax bracket?  For me, the answer is a resounding yes.  I firmly believe it is worth the pain of conversion for the tremendous benefits of a large Roth IRA, especially given the flexibility of investing through a self-directed IRA.

            For Traditional to Roth IRA conversions in tax year 2009, the Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) limit for converting to a Roth IRA is $100,000, whether you are single or married filing jointly.  However, the Tax Increase Prevention and Reconciliation Act (TIPRA) removed the $100,000 MAGI limit for converting to a Roth IRA for tax years after 2009.  This means that beginning in 2010 virtually anyone who either has a Traditional IRA or a former employer’s retirement plan or who is eligible to contribute to a Traditional IRA will be entitled to convert that pre-tax account into a Roth IRA, regardless of income level.

            Even better, for conversions done in tax year 2010 only you are given the choice of paying all of the taxes in tax year 2010 or dividing the conversion income into tax years 2011 and 2012.  If you convert on January 2, 2010, you would not have to finish paying the taxes on your conversion until you filed your 2012 tax return in 2013 – more than 3 years after you converted your Traditional IRA!  One consideration in deciding whether to pay taxes on the conversion in 2010 or dividing the conversion income into 2011 and 2012 is that 2010 is the last tax year in which the tax rates are at a maximum of 35%.  Tax rates are scheduled to return to a maximum tax rate of 39.6% in 2011, and other tax brackets are scheduled to increase as well, so delaying the payment of taxes on the conversion will cost you some additional taxes in 2011 and 2012.  The benefit of delaying payment of the taxes is that you have longer to invest the money before the taxes need to be paid, whether the payment comes from the Roth IRA or from funds outside of the Roth IRA.

            The analysis of whether or not to convert your Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is a complex one for most people, because it depends so much on your personal tax situation and your assumptions about what might happen in the future to your income and to tax rates, as well as how you invest your money.  From my own personal perspective, I make the simple assumption that tax free income in retirement is better than taxable income.  I can afford to pay my taxes now (not that I like it), and I would like to worry less about taxes when I retire.  I also don’t believe that tax rates will be going down in the future.  For me, the decision comes down to whether I want to pay taxes on the “acorn” (my Traditional IRA balance now) or the “oak tree” (my much higher IRA balance years in the future as I make withdrawals). 

            The way I analyze whether or not to convert to a Roth IRA is to calculate my “recovery period” – that is, the time it takes before my overall wealth recovers from the additional taxes I have to pay on the conversion.  If I can recover the cost of the taxes on the conversion before I might need the money in the Roth IRA, then I say it is worth doing, especially since the gains after the conversion are tax free forever.  Fortunately, with a self-directed IRA you are in total control of your investments, and the recovery period can be quite short.  There may also be a benefit if you are able to convert an asset now that may have a substantial increase in value later.

            Using my own situation as an example, I have been planning on doing a conversion in 2010 ever since the passage of TIPRA was announced in 2006.  My first step was to immediately begin making non-deductible Traditional IRA contributions.  Even though I am covered by a 401(k) plan at my company and earn more than the limits for making a deductible Traditional IRA contribution, this does not prevent me from making a non-deductible contribution since I am under age 70 ½.  The main reason I have been making non-deductible contributions to my Traditional IRA is to have more money to convert into a Roth IRA in 2010.  The best thing about this plan is that only the gains I make on the non-deductible contributions to the Traditional IRA will be taxed when I convert to a Roth IRA, since I have already paid taxes on that amount by not taking the deduction.

            I plan on converting approximately $100,000 in pre-tax Traditional IRA money in 2010.  The actual amount converted will be more like $150,000, but as I noted above my wife and I have been making non-deductible contributions to our Traditional IRAs since 2006, so the actual amount we pay taxes on will be less than the total conversion amount.  This means that my tax bill on the conversion will be $35,000 if I pay it all in tax year 2010 or $39,600 divided evenly between tax years 2011 and 2012, assuming I remain in the same tax bracket and Congress doesn’t make other changes to the tax code.

            To help analyze the conversion, I made some calculations of how long it would take me to recover the money I had to pay out in taxes at various rates of return, assuming a taxable conversion of $100,000 and a tax bite of $35,000.  I calculated my recovery period based on paying the taxes with funds outside of the IRA (which is my preference) and by paying taxes from funds withdrawn from the Roth IRA, including the early withdrawal penalty I would have to pay since I am under age 59 ½. 

            If I pay taxes with funds outside of my Roth IRA and can achieve a 12% return compounded monthly, my Roth IRA will grow to $135,000 in only 30 months, at which point I will have fully recovered the cost of the conversion.  A 6% yield on my investments will cause my recovery period to stretch to 60 months, while an 18% yield will result in a recovery period of only 20 months!  Of course paying taxes with funds outside of the IRA reduces my ability to invest that money in other assets for current income or to spend it on living expenses.  But if I have to withdraw the money from the Roth IRA to pay taxes and the early withdrawal penalty, the recovery period for my Roth IRA to achieve a $39,000 increase ($35,000 in taxes and a $3,900 premature distribution penalty) increases to 50 months at a 12% yield and 99 months for a 6% yield.  Paying the taxes from funds outside of my Roth IRA will result in a much larger account in the future also since the full $100,000 can be invested if taxes are paid with outside funds, while only $61,000 remains in the Roth IRA after withdrawal of sufficient funds to pay the taxes and penalties.

            I believe that since my IRAs are all self-directed I can easily recover the cost of the conversion (i.e. the taxes paid) in less than 3 years based on my investment strategy.  From that point forward I am building tax free wealth for me and my heirs.  How can I recover the taxes so quickly?  It’s easy!  Self-directed IRAs can invest in all types of non-traditional investments, including real estate, notes (both secured and unsecured), options, LLCs, limited partnerships and non-publicly traded stock in C corporations.  With a self-directed IRA you can take control of your retirement assets and invest in what you know best.

            In my retirement plan I invest in a lot of real estate secured notes, mostly at 12% interest with anywhere from 2-6% up front in points and fees.  I also own some stock in a 2 year old start up bank in Houston, Texas which is doing very well, and a small amount of stock in a Colorado bank.  As the notes mature I plan on purchasing real estate with my accounts, because I believe now is the best time to buy.  In some cases I may purchase the real estate itself and in other cases I will probably just purchase an option on real estate.  The bank stock will be converted at the market price in 2010, but when the banks sell in a few years I expect to receive a substantial boost in my retirement savings since banks most often sell at a multiple of their book value.  In the meantime, the notes and the real estate will produce cash flow for the IRA, and if I have done my investing correctly the real estate will also result in a substantial increase in my Roth IRA when it sells in a few years.

            Note that I have written this article from the perspective of someone who is in a high tax bracket.  A lower tax bracket will reduce the recovery period and is an even better bargain, especially if you can afford to pay the taxes from funds outside of the Roth IRA.  If you take advantage of the opportunities afforded to you by investing in non-traditional assets with your self-directed Roth IRA, you can truly retire wealthy with a pot of tax free gold at the end of the rainbow.

            H. Quincy Long is Certified IRA Services Professional (CISP) and an attorney and is President of Quest IRA, Inc., with offices in Houston, Austin,  and Dallas, Texas. In addition to Texas, Qunicy has opened an office in Mason, MI this year in December of  2011 and is planning to open an office in Seattle, Washington within the next 12 months.  He may be reached by email at Quincy@QuestIRA.com Nothing in this article is intended as tax, legal or investment advice.

Can I Have a Roth Too, Please? Yes, You Can!!!

By H. Quincy Long

            Most people want a Roth IRA once they understand the tremendous tax benefits.  You do not receive a tax deduction for contributing money to a Roth IRA, but qualified distributions are TAX FREE FOREVER.  Essentially the concept of a Roth IRA is that you pay taxes on the “acorn” (the initial contribution) instead of the “oak tree” (the potentially large amount in the Roth IRA after many years of tax deferred accumulation).  This is especially beneficial in a truly self-directed IRA, which can invest in real estate, notes, options, private company stock, LLCs, limited partnerships and other non-traditional asset

            Unfortunately, there are income limits for contributing to a Roth IRA or converting money from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.  For contributions, a married couple filing jointly may not contribute if they have Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) of more than $176,000 for 2009.  For single individuals the MAGI limit is no more than $120,000 for 2009 to be able to contribute to a Roth IRA.  The news is even worse if you want to convert assets from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA.  Whether married or single, you are not eligible to do a Roth conversion if your MAGI is more than $100,000.

            For people who exceed these income limits, it might at first appear that they are left out in the cold when it comes to Roth IRAs.  Fortunately, this is not actually true.  There are at least 3 ways in which a person who exceeds the income limits may end up with a Roth IRA.  The key phrase is “end up with” in the preceding statement.

            The first method of acquiring a Roth IRA if you exceed the income limits is to inherit one.  There is no age discrimination for contributing to a Roth IRA, unlike the Traditional IRA.  Anyone with earned income within the limits can contribute.  Earned income is generally income on which you must pay Social Security and Medicare taxes.  Passive or investment income, including rents, interest and dividends do not count as earned income, but it is not that hard to create earned income.  An elderly relative or friend may be able to help in your business in some way, for example, and your payment to them for their assistance would be earned income.  They may even be predisposed to name you as their beneficiary in the event of their death.

When a Roth IRA is inherited, the new account owner must take required minimum distributions from the IRA, unless the inheritor is a spouse.  Required minimum distributions are not required for the original account owner.  However, this does not mean that the balance in the account cannot be invested, and it is easy, at least with a self-directed IRA, to create income which exceeds the yearly required minimum distributions.  Even better, if the person who died had a Roth IRA for at least 5 tax years, distributions from the account are tax free, even if the inheritor is under age 59 ½.  There is never a 10% premature distribution penalty either, since the distribution is due to death.

            A second method to acquire a Roth IRA has to do with excess contributions.  Many people do not really know whether their income will exceed the limits when they make their Roth IRA contribution, especially if they contribute early in the year.  This is certainly true of self-employed persons.  So what happens if you make a mistake by contributing early and it turns out your income exceeded the MAGI limit for the year? 

If you take action before your tax filing deadline, including extensions (generally October 15), you can recharacterize the contribution to a traditional IRA as long as you are under age 70 1/2, along with all of the net income attributable (NIA) to the contribution.  You may also remove the contribution from the Roth IRA, along with any net income attributable.  In this case the only penalty which you might have to pay is on the income attributed to the contribution, not on the contribution itself.  If you remove the contribution after your tax filing deadline plus extensions, it is unclear from the regulations whether you must also remove the net income attributable from the Roth IRA.  A third choice is to leave the contribution in the Roth IRA and pay a penalty on the excess contribution.  In many circumstances this may be the wisest choice.

If you leave the money in your Roth IRA, you are required to pay a penalty of 6% of the amount of the excess contribution for each year that the excess remains in the Roth IRA.  For example, if you make an excess contribution $4,000 to a Roth IRA and your MAGI exceeds the limit, your penalty is only $240 for each year the excess remains in the account.  This is the penalty regardless of how much money you make in the Roth!  Since the penalty only applies for as long as the excess contribution remains in the Roth IRA, you will no longer have to pay the penalty if you qualify for a Roth in a future year and do not contribute or if you remove the contribution.  Once you have a Roth IRA, the account may continue to be invested regardless of your current year income. 

            Finally, in 2010 the $100,000 MAGI limit for converting assets from a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA is eliminated.  Although a person who exceeds the MAGI limit will still not be able to contribute to a Roth IRA, in 2010 and future years anyone may convert assets in a Traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, no matter what their income level.  The amount converted is generally added to your taxable income for the year of conversion to extent it exceeds any non-deductible contributions in the account.  For conversions in the year 2010 only, however, the person converting has the choice of paying 50% of the taxes on the conversion in 2011 and the other 50% in 2012.  You have 3 years to pay taxes on Roth conversions done in 2010!

            As I always say, there are worse things than not qualifying for a Roth IRA, such as qualifying for a Roth IRA!  Whether by inheriting a Roth IRA, through an inadvertent excess contribution, or by conversion in 2010, even those who are fortunate enough not to qualify for a Roth IRA due to income exceeding the MAGI limit may end up with a Roth IRA.  Even a small Roth IRA can be built into a large IRA with careful investing, which means that even the wealthy can have a substantial amount of tax free retirement income.

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.