Can You Use a Trust to Fund Higher Education?

This approach isn’t for everyone, but if your assets are large enough that you may be facing estate tax issues, a trust may reduce your potential future estate tax, while funding the costs of college education.

The 529 college savings plan is a very popular way for parents to save for the ever-increasing costs of a college education. 529 plans offer tax-free asset growth, possible tax-deductible contributions at the state level and flexibility: you can change the beneficiary at any time to another eligible family member, as long as the funds are used for education.

A recent article in Forbes, “Funding Education? Consider A Trust Instead of A 529 Plan,” also notes that you can front-load up to five years’ worth of annual exclusion gifts ($14,000/year or $70,000 in total per grantor). However, front-loading the annual exemption doesn’t increase the total exemption available. You’ll exhaust the ability to make annual gifts for that particular beneficiary for the current and next four years. Any contributions to a 529 plan beyond the annual exclusion will impact the donors’ lifetime exclusion, but with a lifetime gift and estate tax exclusion of $5.49 million, it’s not a big concern.

This approach is based on the ability to make certain current gifts, “qualified transfers,” that don’t erode the annual exclusion or lifetime exclusion. Qualified transfers are direct payments for medical and educational expenses.

However, you could use annual exclusion gifts to fund trusts that may be used for education or for other purposes and then directly pay educational expenses as incurred—since the payments don’t count against either the annual or lifetime exclusions. This may work very well for wealthy grandparents. Therefore, annual exclusion gifts that would otherwise have been utilized on 529 plan contributions, can be used to make contributions to an irrevocable trust for the benefit of the child. This means a more efficient, flexible and robust transfer of wealth to the next generation. With this in mind, a trust has some distinct advantages, as far as flexibility, over a 529 plan:

  • Trust assets can be designated for a variety of investments, not the limited options of a 529 plan;
  • Trust documents can provide the flexibility that lets the trustees distribute assets for education and for other purposes like medical expenses;
  • Assets can remain in trust for the benefit of beneficiaries after the education is finished, which offers some asset protection from creditors, divorce, and poor spending habits; and
  • A trust can hold life insurance and beneficiary’s interests in other family wealth transfer vehicles.

Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the estate tax benefits of using a trust, the expected costs of tuition and related educational expenses as compared to the tax benefits offered by a 529 plan. Make sure to include the legal expense of creating and managing a trust. Using a trust strategy for educational planning that works in sync with your estate plan and tax strategies is complex and will require the help of a knowledgeable estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (August 22, 2017) “Funding Education? Consider A Trust Instead of A 529 Plan.”