Answering Four Common Questions About COVID-19 and 529 Plans

Learn how virtual classes, gap years, K-12 expenses and refunds may impact your education savings.

The COVID-19 outbreak has upended normal life across the world, and higher education has been no exception. As more college students respond to the pandemic by taking a gap year (i.e., a year-long break from school) or opting for reduced course loads, you may be wondering what these and other changes could mean for your 529 plan. Fortunately, we’ve got answers.

My college student is enrolled in virtual classes this semester. What expenses are covered under my 529 plan?

Higher education expenses that would normally be covered under a 529 plan also apply to virtual classes. These expenses include tuition, books, school supplies, fees, computer equipment and peripherals. Room and board will also be covered if your student is enrolled at least half time. To explore estimated expenses for an academic year, visit the respective college or university’s cost of attendance page.

If my college student takes a gap year or enrolls in fewer classes this semester, how would it affect my education savings?

Since 529 plans do not have an expiration date, your funds will be ready when you need them. This means you can resume distributions as you normally would once your student returns to school. If your student has opted for a reduced course load, then tuition, supplies and fees will all be covered by your 529 plan. However, they will need to be enrolled at least half time for room and board to qualify under your plan. If you have any questions regarding your student’s level of enrollment (partial, half time or full time), contact their educational institution.

I have a K-12 student. Can I use my 529 plan to purchase a computer? What about tutoring services?

The K-12 provision in 529 plans applies exclusively to tuition expenses. You may use up to $10,000 each year to cover these costs. While K-12 distributions are considered a qualified expense under federal law, not every state treats K-12 distributions in the same manner. To determine how your state treats K-12 distributions, consult with a local tax professional.

I received a refund from my student’s school. What are my options?

You have several options when it comes to managing amounts refunded by the school. The first is to use the refunded amount toward other qualified education expenses that same calendar year. This will ensure that your 1099 matches the incurred expenses. The second option is to re-contribute the refunded amounts back into the 529 plan within 60 days of the day the school issued the check. This contribution will be counted as a current year contribution. Just remember to safely store documentation of the refund and re-contribution for your records.

Earnings in 529 plans are not subject to federal tax and in most cases state tax, as long as you use withdrawals for eligible education expenses. However, if you withdraw money from a 529 plan and do not use it on an eligible education expense, you generally will be subject to income tax and an additional 10% federal tax penalty on earnings. Investment products are: not deposits, not FDIC/NCUA insured, not insured by any government agency, not bank guaranteed, subject to risk and may lose value.

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