Worried About Unused 529 Funds? New 529 to Roth IRA Rollover Option

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One of the concerns about contributing to 529 plan for college savings is that you won’t end up using all the money and end up being hit with additional taxes (at ordinary income rates) and penalties on an non-qualified withdrawal. The funds potentially would have been better off simply invested in a taxable brokerage account (and long-term capital gains rates).

This was partially addressed within the SECURE 2.0 Act of 2022, part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act (CAA) of 2023. Specifically, Section 126 [PDF link], “Special Rules for Certain Distributions from Long-term Qualified Tuition Programs to Roth IRAs”, which adds the ability to roll your 529 funds into a Roth IRA both tax-free and penalty-free starting in 2024. Kitces.com covers many of the major points. Here is a quick summary of the rollover requirements:

  • The Roth IRA receiving the rollover money must be owned by the beneficiary of the 529 plan. (Unless the beneficiary is also the owner, the money can’t go to the owner’s Roth IRA.)
  • The 529 plan must have been open for at least 15 years.
  • The rollover amount must have been in the 529 account for at least 5 years before your distribution date (contributions and attached earnings).
  • The annual rollover amount is limited to annual IRA contribution limits, and is reduced by any “regular” Roth IRA contributions made during the tax year. (You are not able to exceed the usual max contribution limits. However, the income (MAGI) limits that usually lower the contribution limits due to high income do not apply.)
  • The Roth IRA owner still needs to earn taxable income, at least equal to the amount of the rollover.
  • The maximum lifetime amount that can be moved from a 529 plan to a Roth IRA is $35,000 per person. (This may not be as much in 15+ years if they don’t increase it with inflation.)

In general, this seems like a reasonable way to alleviate the over-contribution concerns, although the money must still technically go to the beneficiary (usually the kid) and not the owner (usually the parent or grandparent). Previously, options for leftover money included graduate school, changing the beneficiary to another family member or future grandchild, or paying back up to $10,000 in qualified student loans.

There are a few interesting, potential wrinkles that a few readers have pointed out:

  • Making yourself both owner and beneficiary to fund future Roth IRA contributions for yourself (even with no kids). As you aren’t really increasing the total amount you are able to stuff into a Roth IRA in the future, the primary benefit is basically to access the tax-deferral benefit early. For example, you could put in $2,000 today and expect to roll over $6,000 in 15 years (7.6% annualized return). The exception may be if you expect not to be able to do Roth IRA contributions in the future because your income is too high AND the Backdoor Roth IRA method is not available to you. Still, 15 years is a long time to wait, and the law may change in the future to restrict this type of move. In such a case, it may backfire and subject you to taxes and penalties.
  • Planning to change the beneficiary from kid to yourself later on. Maybe you don’t want your kid to have the unspent funds, and plan to simply change the beneficiary to yourself later on. However, it’s not 100% clear if beneficiary changes will reset the 15-year clock or otherwise affect rollover eligibility. The law specifically restricted the rollover
  • Contributing extra money for the specific purpose of early funding for your children’s Roth IRAs. This might spur higher-income parents to put even more money into their 529s on purpose, as you are essentially indirectly able to fund a Roth IRA with tax-deferred growth for your kid way before they have earned income. When they eventually do have any form of earned income from a part-time or entry-level job in their teens or early 20s, the money can just roll into their Roth IRA officially (up to the limits).

I don’t have any immediate plans to take advantage of any of these potential scenarios, but taken together it does make me feel better about the 529 contributions that I have already made. Which I suppose is the overall idea?

In terms of other actionable advice, it may be worth it to start a 529 for each child immediately or as soon as possible, even if only putting in $25 or whatever is the minimum amount, just to start the 15 year clock in case you do want to take advantage of this feature down the road. There are countless examples out there of the benefit of starting the compounding early, especially when it can keep growing tax-free forever.

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  1. Haha…I wish I had enough to worry about *too much* in my child’s 529 account. I don’t think we’ll have any problem emptying it out unless pigs start flying and tuition starts coming down drastically.

  2. I just read the Kitces piece. I was confused reading your second bullet (five year restriction). I don’t feel that you and Kitces are in agreement on what is meant by that provision. You seem to say that one can not convert more than was contributed in the last five years; Kitces seems to say that money contributed in the recent five years can not be contributed. In your case, if a parent did not make any recent-five year contributions, there can not be a conversion; in Kitces cases, it would not limit the amount converted.
    Also, there seems to be a planning opportunity regarding state income taxes. For states that allow a deduction to their own plans, this effectively allows state level deductibility of Roth IRA contributions.

    • Apologies for any confusion, I have re-worded it. The rollover amount must have been in the 529 account for at least 5 years before your distribution date (contributions and attached earnings).

      Basically, they don’t want you to contribute at the last minute and then immediately roll it over into a Roth. They want the money to have been in there for at least 5 years.

    • Interesting point regarding the state income deduction. I’m assuming there is not tax recapture if you do a Roth rollover.

  3. 1. really would like to know if beneficiary changes will reset the 15-year clock;
    2. even rollover to child’s Roth is limited to that child earned income, right?


  4. I’d also like to know whether changing the beneficiary to yourself later on would reset the 15-year clock?

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