Chris Chen CFP
How should Iuse the 529 Account?
The first part of this post described 10 key features of the new 529A Account created by the ABLE Act that was passed by Congress in December 2014. Let us know if we can send you a copy or a link to the entire article. This second and final part discusses implications for disabled loved ones.
The 529A comes with built-in advantages such as relatively low costs (expected), tax advantages, and the ability to have up to $100,000 in assets without jeopardizing access to public support programs.
The new plan should be very attractive to many middle class families. Similar to the intent of the the 529 college plan for college bound students, the 529A allows families to set aside money for their disabled loved one, and use it as needed, while limiting the impact of unforeseen expenses on their lifestyle.
However, the 529A has restrictions for annual contributions and maximum balance which may make an account delicate to manage. It is not a vehicle for disabled people to accumulate more than $100,000. In fact due to the relatively low balance limit, the vagaries of market fluctuations that it may be subjected to, and the inevitable withdrawals that will occur, many people will want, if they can afford it, to supplement a 529A with a Special Needs Trust.
Due to the contribution limit, the accumulation phase of the 529A could last up to 7 years, making accumulation a medium term investment horizon. Perhaps one way to manage accumulation would be to contribute $14,000 for three or four or five years and then let the investment grow (hopefully to $100,000) over time. The distribution phase starts as the balance approaches $100,000. While it appears that according to the rules the beneficiary’s Supplemental Security Income will suspend when the balance goes over $100,000, it is not clear yet how this suspension would be implemented. Will “any” peak above $100,000 trigger the suspension? Or will it be the balance as of an arbitrary date, say at the end of the month? Rules and regulations are still being written, so we don’t have that answer yet.
Nonetheless, the key is that the balance will have to be managed, and drawn down as necessary so as not to exceed the magic $100,000 balance limit. Given the general upward bias of financial markets, it would imply that it may be best to 1) manage the balance to a level of safety below $100,000 like, say, $90,000; and 2) plan a periodic monthly withdrawal to cover ongoing expenses.
Using the 529A as a checking account cum investment account is not necessarily optimal. Most of us dissociate our checking accounts from our investment accounts for good reasons. And yet, the 529A seems to be designed to be used as both, primarily because 529A investment earnings are expected to be tax free (checking accounts are effectively tax free since they have no earnings to tax). Hence the only way to earn a windfall from the 529A is to invest.
Many readers will be familiar with the sequence of return problems that can come with a retirement account: when a new retiree takes initial withdrawals in the same period that the financial markets experience a downturn, the risk of running out of money before end of life increases tremendously. The same will be true for the 529A, especially since the time horizon can be so much longer than for retirement. While a 30 year retirement is common, it is likely that many 529A beneficiaries will need their account for up to 60 years or longer. In the absence of a party willing and able to replenish the account, for instance, by another relative after the parents pass away, 529A accounts may still need to be supplemented by Special Needs Trusts. Actually, 529 accounts fit well as a stop-gap before Special Needs Trusts are funded, as many Special Needs Trusts remain unfunded until life insurance pays up after the death of the parents.
Since 529A accounts are not offered yet as of the time of this writing, we don’t know what kind of investment options will be available. As mentioned, the accumulation phase could be for as little as 7 years, which makes it a medium term investment horizon, followed by a very long distribution phase (up to 60 years or longer) during which the main investment need will be for income, and the need to manage the balance to under $100,000. That is very different from 529 College plans which have up to 18 years accumulation and then distribute over a 4 to 5 years period.
States which will offer 529A Plans will be well advised to propose different investment offerings than those offered for their college plans. For instance, the standard age based investment options currently offered by most college plans will probably not be appropriate. In addition, because participants will sometimes draw from the 529A account in declining markets, they will likely demand solutions that are relatively insensitive to downward market fluctuations. The temptation will be to leave it in cash or near-cash, thus giving up on a critical feature, the ability to grow investments tax-free.
The 529A is not a perfect vehicle. However, it is a great new tool to help disabled people. It will allow more families to plan support for their disabled family members with an easy-to-use framework that should be relatively low cost and may provide additional funding in the form of tax free earnings. In addition, 529A Accounts supplement rather than replace Special Needs Trusts by filling a gap for the period before Special Needs Trusts are funded
Let us know if you would like a copy of Part 1 and Part 2 of this article on the new 529A, or if you have further questions.
(A previous version of this article originally appeared in nerdwallet.com)