Even though many gifts no longer make tax sense, 529 plans remain viable options for both estate tax exclusion and income tax reduction, without much complexity and cost.
Which gifts make sense for taxes these days? Consider your options.
Before changes to the federal estate tax exemption amount (i.e., $5 million per taxpayer, as indexed for inflation), taxpayers were encouraged to make lifetime gifts to reduce their federal estate tax. This was especially the case when the exemption was $1 million per taxpayer with top 55% rate on any amount over that. Now, however, the common advice is for all but the über wealthy to retain their assets to ensure there is enough to live on during their lifetime. According to a National Law Review article, titled "529 Plans: Estate Tax and Income Tax Advantages," a second benefit of passing assets at death is that the recipient of the assets obtains a "step up" in the assets' basis to fair market value—avoiding income tax on the sale.
The original article advises that gifting is appropriate for tax purposes for grandparents and parents wanting to save for escalating college tuition. Contributions to 529's are treated as gifts for tax purposes, and they qualify for the $14,000 annual gift tax exclusion. Another benefit is that these contributions can be "pre-funded" for five years. This means that $70,000 per parent (or $140,000 for a married couple) can be removed from the donor’s estate more quickly than annual contributions. Remember, though, that the donor must survive the five years, or some of that gift with be placed back in the taxable estate.
The investment grows tax-free as far as federal income taxes, and the distributions to pay for the beneficiary's college costs also are not taxed. State law, however, may impact the state income tax liability.
Other advantages to a 529 plan include the donor's control of the funds. In a custodial account, the recipient receives the funds at 18 or 21, and other gift strategies give up control to get an estate tax exclusion.
The only real disadvantage for 529’s is if you are applying for financial aid, as the 529 may be deemed an asset. 529 plans can still be a sound choice from the perspective of both estate tax exclusion and income tax reduction without a great deal of expense or time. Even so, talk to an estate planning attorney and financial advisor and get sound advice on where to go to set up the best 529 for your child and to implement the best strategies for your education situation.
Reference: The National Law Review (September 8, 2014) "529 Plans: Estate Tax and Income Tax Advantages"