Email FacebookTwitterMenu burgerClose thin

What Are Tax-Free Distributions From 529 Plans?


A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings account designed to help families save for future education costs. Withdrawing money, also called a distribution, from a 529 plan for qualified education expenses, such as tuition, fees, books, and room and board, is tax-free. Neither the federal government, nor most states, will tax the earnings on these withdrawals. Qualified education expenses cover a wide range of costs, but it’s important to keep detailed records and receipts of all distributions from a 529 plan to ensure that they are appropriately categorized to remain tax-free. If you need help leveraging these tax-free funds to significantly reduce your cost of higher education, a financial advisor can walk you through different strategies.

Understanding Tax-Free Distribution Benefits for Your 529 Plan

Named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, these college savings plans are specialized accounts designed to help families save for future education expenses. They offer significant tax advantages and flexibility, making them a popular choice for those planning for college costs.

Every state in the U.S. and the District of Columbia offers at least one type of 529 plan, but they’re not all the same. Some states provide tax incentives for residents who invest in their plans, such as tax deductions or credits. While you can invest in any state’s 529 plan, it’s often beneficial to start by exploring your own state’s offerings due to these potential tax benefits.

One of the primary benefits of 529 plans is their tax treatment. Contributions to a 529 plan grow tax-deferred, meaning you won’t pay taxes on the investment gains each year.

When it comes time to use the funds, distributions used for qualified education expenses like books, fees and tuition are entirely tax-free. This tax-free growth and distribution make 529 plans an efficient way to save for college. Also, 529 plans typically have high contribution limits, allowing you to save more over time when compared with other types of education savings accounts. 

Additionally, anyone can contribute to a 529 plan, including grandparents, relatives and friends, making it a collaborative effort to support a child’s educational future. Most plans also offer a range of investment options. You can go with an age-based portfolio that’s professionally managed and gets more conservative the closer your child gets to starting college, or you can monitor the plan along with an advisor and make adjustments based on your own risk tolerance and investment schedule.

These plans do have some drawbacks, though. If you withdraw funds for non-qualified expenses, you’ll face income tax on the earnings plus a 10% penalty, which can significantly reduce your savings. Additionally, investment options within 529 plans can be somewhat limited when compared with other investment accounts. Finally, while the funds can be used at any accredited institution, including some international schools, they are primarily designed for college expenses, which means they might not be as flexible as other savings vehicles.

Qualified Expenses That Keep Your 529 Distributions Tax-Free

Proud parents congratulating their daughter after graduating from college.

Using your 529 distributions for non-qualified expenses, like transportation or extracurricular activities, results in taxes and a 10% penalty on earnings. However, the IRS has specific guidelines for how to avoid federal income tax and penalties.

The tax-free distributions from a 529 plan will cover a variety of educational expenses required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible institution. Tuition and fees are covered, as is room and board for students enrolled at least half-time, along with books, supplies and equipment such as computers and internet access.

There are also penalty-free ways to access 529 funds not used for education. One option is to change the beneficiary to another eligible family member. This flexibility allows for the funds to benefit siblings or even parents pursuing further education. Alternatively, the SECURE 2.0 Act allows withdrawals of up to $10,000 to repay student loans for the beneficiary or their siblings.

What if the beneficiary receives a scholarship? Withdrawals up to the amount of the scholarship are allowed without penalty, though the earnings portion will be subject to income tax. Additionally, if the beneficiary attends a U.S. Military Academy, funds can be withdrawn penalty-free, though again, earnings will be taxed.

Managing Your 529 Plan and Any Tax Filings

Once you figure out the total cost of your qualified educational expenses, you can typically request funds online by submitting a withdrawal request form or through your plan’s website. You will receive Form 1099-Q from your plan administrator, which reports the total tax-free distributions from your 529 plan. When filing your taxes, make sure that the amounts on Form 1099-Q match your records of qualified educational expenses. Misreporting can result in taxes and penalties, undermining the plan’s benefits.

If you have leftover funds in your 529 plan, it’s essential to handle them correctly to avoid penalties. The IRS imposes a 10% penalty on earnings for non-qualified withdrawals, in addition to income tax on those earnings. However, there are ways to minimize or avoid these penalties. One option is to change the beneficiary to another family member who can use the funds for their educational expenses. Another strategy is to use the funds for your own further education, which also qualifies for tax-free distributions.

Planning Ahead for 529 Plan Withdrawals

A mom posing for a picture with her child and husband at her college graduation.

To maximize your success, select a 529 plan with low fees and a strong track record. You should also monitor your investment options and adjust them based on market conditions and your child’s age. It’s also advisable to avoid frequent withdrawals to maintain the account’s growth potential. Remember, tax-free distributions from a 529 plan are limited to qualified education expenses, so plan your withdrawals carefully to avoid penalties and taxes.

Your 529 plan also has an impact on any student aid applications. The funds in a 529 plan owned by a parent are treated as parental assets and assessed at a lower rate in the expected family contribution (EFC) formula than the student’s assets. However, distributions from a 529 plan are not considered income if used for qualified education expenses. It’s important to report the 529 plan correctly on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to ensure you receive the appropriate amount of aid.

Working with a certified college planning specialist is another way that can help you navigate the complexities of a 529 plan and student aid. These professionals help you select the best 529 plan, develop a savings strategy tailored to your financial situation, and optimize your student aid applications.

Bottom Line

Understanding what a tax free distribution from a 529 plan can do for you is important for maximizing your educational savings. These withdrawals, used exclusively for qualified education expenses, can offer significant tax advantages, thereby helping you save more for college costs.

Education Planning Tips

  • A financial advisor can help you create a financial plan to save for education expenses and beyond. Finding a financial advisor doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with up to three vetted financial advisors who serve your area, and you can have a free introductory call with your advisor matches to decide which one you feel is right for you. If you’re ready to find an advisor who can help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • If you’re on the fence about paying for college, SmartAsset’s student loan calculator and college finance guide can help you weigh the benefits and costs of going to college.

Photo credit: © Trade Latin, © Trade Latin, © Productions