The College Savings 529 plan offers a way for modest-income families to save and invest for college expenses for their children as early as birth up to college age. When invested 529 funds are used to pay for the beneficiary’s qualifying education costs, earnings are distributed tax-free.

However, a lesser-known advantage for wealthier families is that the 529 plan can be used as an effective tax-advantaged tool for funding college expenses for family members over multiple generations. Basically, the 529 enables the investment to continue growing tax-free for years and even decades after the death of the original owner and beneficiary.

Assets from a 529 account may be used to pay for expenses associated with higher education, including tuition, fees, books, room, and board. The 529 also can be used to pay up to $10,000 a year in tuition expenses for K-12 education and a lifetime total of up to $10,000 in student loan repayments.

No Age or Use Restrictions

The two key components to this planning strategy, referred to a Family Dynasty 529 plan, are that the beneficiary can be changed at any time and that there is no time frame during which all assets must be distributed (including no required minimum distributions).

Note that the selection of a 529 beneficiary is rather broad:

  •        Account owner (self)
  •        Spouse
  •        Child
  •        Spouse of a child
  •        Brother, sister, stepbrother, stepsister or their spouse
  •        Mother, father, the ancestor of either or their spouse
  •        Stepfather, stepmother or the spouse of either such person
  •        Nephew, niece or their spouse
  •        Aunt, uncle or their spouse
  •        Son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, sister-in-law or their spouse
  •        First cousin

While the 529 can have only one named beneficiary at a time, the beneficiary can be changed at any time (such as once a student graduates), leaving the remaining funds for the next beneficiary.

No Contribution Limit

Unlike federal tax filings, many states offer a limited tax deduction on annual 529 contributions. Note that there is no limit to the amount that can be contributed to a 529 account each year. However, there is a limit to how much can be contributed to each 529 account in total, and that amount differs by state, with the range falling between $235,000 and $529,000. Georgia and Mississippi are the lowest at $235,000, and California features the highest limit at $529,000 (note that a California account can be opened no matter where the owner or beneficiary lives). Moreover, there is no limit to how much invested tax-free 529 assets can grow.

One strategy is to fund a family dynasty 529 with the maximum limit in one lump sum. The idea here is that one lump sum invested for tax-free growth offers the potential to fund college education expenses for a vast number of extended family members over several generations. Each time a beneficiary graduates, a new beneficiary is named. If there are multiple students scheduled to attend college at the same time, multiple 529 accounts can be opened with separate beneficiaries.

Changing Owner for Dynasty Plan to Continue

It is likely that when funding over several generations, the original 529 account owner will pass away. A few plans permit change of ownership only in the event of the death or incapacity of the current owner, but most 529 plans allow the change in ownership at any time, as long as the owner has reached the age of majority for that state’s plan. By periodically changing both owners and beneficiaries of the account, the family dynasty 529 can continue to grow and pay for qualified education expenses indefinitely.

The 529 also may be structured so that the account owner is a trust, which makes it unnecessary to change owners as they pass away. A trust can help protect 529 funds from creditors and may contain language mandating that assets can be used only for higher education – thus eliminating the potential for a beneficiary to drain the account with non-qualified withdrawals.

Potential Gift/GST Tax Consequences

Be aware that some state 529 plans may treat a change in ownership as a distributable event and will issue Form 1099 for tax purposes. Also note that when a new 529 plan beneficiary is one or more generations below the most recent beneficiary, distributed assets beyond the annual gift tax exemption ($17,000 for 2023) may be subject to the gift tax. In this scenario, should excess amounts exceed the lifetime gift tax exemption ($12.92 million for 2023), distributions may be subject to an additional generation-skipping transfer tax (GST).

The Family Dynasty 529 plan is best optimized when started early, such as the birth of the first child, and overfunded to the maximum limit. This allows for the best growth opportunity, wherein college expenses may be funded using tax-free earnings, leaving the principal available to grow for the next student beneficiary. Better yet, parents or grandparents can retain control of the account to ensure it is used only for college funding over multiple generations.