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Who Maintains Control Over a 529 Plan’s Assets?


A 529 plan is a popular savings vehicle for college expenses, but you may wonder who maintains control over the 529 plan and its assets. Control typically resides with the account owner, often a parent or grandparent, who retains the authority to make investment decisions and withdrawals. The beneficiary, usually the student, has no direct control over the funds. This arrangement allows the account owner to maintain oversight while potentially reaping tax advantages and financial aid benefits.

A financial advisor can help you save and plan for your children’s future education expenses. Connect with a fiduciary advisor today.

529 Plans Basics

A 529 plan is a tax-advantaged savings account designed to help families save for education expenses. These plans are named after Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, which authorizes their existence. They come in two primary types:

  • Prepaid tuition plans: These plans allow account holders to purchase future tuition credits at current prices, effectively locking in today’s rates. They’re typically sponsored by state governments and have residency requirements.
  • Education savings plans: These plans function more like investment accounts, where contributions can be invested in various options such as mutual funds. The value of these accounts can fluctuate based on the performance of the chosen investments.

Key Players in a 529 Plan

To understand who controls the assets in a 529 plan, let’s take a closer look at the key players involved:

  • Account owner: The person who establishes and funds the 529 plan. This individual has full control over the account and makes all decisions related to contributions, investments and distributions.
  • Beneficiary: The student or future student for whom the 529 plan is intended. While the plan is meant to benefit the beneficiary, they do not have control over the account unless they are also the account owner.
  • Custodian/plan administrator: The financial institution or state agency that manages the 529 plan, ensuring it complies with federal and state regulations.

Tax Benefits of 529 Plans

One of the key advantages of a 529 plan is its tax benefits. Contributions to a 529 plan grow tax-free, and withdrawals used for qualified education expenses are also tax-free at the federal level. Some states offer additional tax deductions or credits for contributions to their own state’s plan, further enhancing the tax benefits.

Qualified education expenses for 529 plans include tuition, fees, books, supplies and equipment required for enrollment or attendance at an eligible educational institution. In recent years, the scope of qualified expenses has expanded to include certain K-12 tuition costs, apprenticeship programs, and even student loan repayments, providing greater flexibility for families.

Keep in mind that 529 plan contributions are considered gifts, so annual limits mirror the annual gift tax exclusion of $18,000 per recipient in 2024.

Who Maintains Control Over a 529 Plan?

A father explains to his young son how he's using a 529 plan to save for his college education.

The control of a 529 plan rests with the account owner, who has significant flexibility in managing investments and determining fund usage. This control helps in making informed decisions to maximize the plan’s benefits for the beneficiary’s education.

The account owner has the flexibility to choose how the funds are invested within the options provided by the plan. Most 529 plans offer a range of investment choices, including age-based portfolios that automatically adjust the asset mix as the beneficiary gets closer to college age. This flexibility allows the account owner to tailor the investment strategy to their risk tolerance and financial goals.

When it comes to using the funds, the account owner decides when and how the money is withdrawn. If the beneficiary does not need the funds for education, the account owner can transfer the account to another eligible family member without penalty.

It’s important for the account owner makes withdrawals for qualified education expenses to avoid taxes and penalties. Non-qualified withdrawals are subject to income tax and a 10% penalty on earnings.

Choosing a 529 Plan

A woman looks over various 529 plans on her phone.

Choosing the right 529 plan is a significant step in securing your child’s educational future. With numerous options available, it’s essential to understand what to look for to make an informed decision.

Compare State Plans

Each state offers its own 529 plan, with unique benefits such as tax deductions or credits for residents. It’s important to compare the plans available in your state with those from other states. Some state plans may offer lower fees, better investment options or additional perks for in-state residents.

Investment Options and Fees

When evaluating a 529 plan, consider the investment options and associated fees. Look for plans that offer a range of investment choices, from conservative to aggressive portfolios, to match your risk tolerance and investment horizon. Pay attention to the plan’s fees, including management fees and expense ratios, as these can impact the overall return on your investment. Lower fees typically mean more of your money is working towards your child’s education.

Flexibility and Usage

The flexibility of a 529 plan is another key factor. Make sure the plan you choose allows for changes in beneficiaries and investments without significant penalties. This flexibility can be beneficial if your child’s educational goals change or if you have multiple children who may need assistance at different times.

Bottom Line

Control over a 529 plan’s assets typically resides with the account owner, who can make strategic investment decisions for the beneficiary and manage withdrawals so that the funds are used for qualified educational purposes. Understanding the key players, the tax benefits and the importance of choosing the right plan can help families effectively save for future education expenses.

Financial Planning Tips

  • Maintain an emergency fund with enough money to cover between three and six months worth of living expenses. An emergency fund should be liquid – in an account that isn’t at risk of significant fluctuation like the stock market. The tradeoff is that the value of liquid cash can be eroded by inflation. But a high-interest account allows you to earn compound interest. Compare savings accounts from these banks.
  • Financial planners can help you build a comprehensive, holistic plan for your financial life. 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.

Photo credit: ©, © Anthony Eddy, © Wackerhausen