Coverdell Education Savings Accounts

Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (Coverdell ESAs) are one of three types of qualified education benefits, the other types being 529 college savings plans and prepaid tuition plans. Distributions from a Coverdell education savings account are tax-free if used to pay for qualified education expenses subject to certain additional restrictions. Coverdell ESAs were previously known as Education Individual Retirement Accounts (Education IRAs).

Coverdell education savings accounts are eligible for a broader range of investment options than 529 college savings plans. Investors can choose to invest in individual stocks and bonds, not just in a limited selection of mutual funds. (Investments are not permitted in life insurance contracts.)

Tax Treatment of Distributions

Contributions to a Coverdell education savings account are made with after-tax dollars. Earnings within a Coverdell ESA occur on a tax-deferred basis.

Distributions are tax-free if used to pay for qualified education expenses. Qualified education expenses include the same qualified higher education expenses as 529 college savings plans, qualified elementary and secondary school expenses, and rollovers into a 529 college savings plan or prepaid tuition plan for the same beneficiary. Qualified higher education expenses include tuition, fees, books, supplies, equipment, and, if enrolled on at least a half-time basis, room and board. Qualified elementary and secondary school expenses include tuition, fees, academic tutoring, special needs services, books, supplies, equipment, room and board, uniforms, transportation, computer equipment, software and internet access.

The earnings portion of a non-qualified distribution is taxed at the beneficiary’s rate plus a 10 percent tax penalty. Exceptions are made for the 10 percent tax penalty (but not the ordinary income taxes) for distributions made in connection with the beneficiary’s death or disability, because of the receipt of a scholarship, veterans education benefits or employer tuition assistance by the beneficiary, because of the attendance of the beneficiary at a U.S. military academy or because of coordination restrictions with the American Opportunity Tax Credit or Lifetime Learning Tax Credit.

Coordination Restrictions

Taxpayers cannot double dip. Taxpayers cannot use the same expenses to justify both the exclusion from income for distributions from a Coverdell education savings account and another education tax benefit, such as a tax-free distribution from a 529 college savings plan or the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Contributions may be made to both a Coverdell education savings account and a 529 college savings or prepaid tuition plan for the same beneficiary in the same year.

Contribution Limits

Contributions may come from any individual, including the beneficiary, the beneficiary’s parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles or other relatives, and people unrelated to the beneficiary. Contributions may also come from corporations, trusts and other organizations.

Total combined contributions to a Coverdell education savings account are limited to $2,000 per beneficiary per year, regardless of the source of funds.

Excess contributions for the current and previous tax years are subject to a 6 percent excise tax. Excess contributions are reduced by the amount of any distributions. The excess contributions during the previous year may be offset by the difference between the current year’s contribution limit and the current year’s total contributions, if total contributions are less than the current year’s contribution limit. Note that the contribution limit is $2,000 or the sum of each contributor’s adjusted limit, whichever is less. Excess contributions do not include rollovers.

Five-year gift-tax averaging is available for contributions to a Coverdell education savings account, similar to the five-year gift tax averaging available for contributions to a 529 college savings plan or prepaid tuition plan account. However, five-year gift tax averaging is less likely to be necessary given that the $2,000 annual limit on contributions to a Coverdell education savings account is less than the annual gift tax exclusion.

Military death gratuities and payments from Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance may be contributed to one or more Coverdell education savings accounts without regard to the annual contribution limits.

Age Limits

Contributions must end when the beneficiary reaches age 18. Distributions must occur within 30 days after the beneficiary reaches age 30 or dies. Both age limits are waived for special needs beneficiaries, such as disabled students.

Changing the Beneficiary

The beneficiary of a Coverdell education savings account may be changed to a member of the family of the current beneficiary, provided that the new beneficiary has not yet reached 30 years of age. Rollovers to the Coverdell education savings account of a member of the family of the current beneficiary are also permitted once per 12-month period, provided that the new beneficiary has not yet reached 30 years of age.

Members of the family of the beneficiary include the beneficiary’s spouse, the beneficiary’s son, daughter, stepchild, foster child, adopted child or their descendants, the beneficiary’s brother, sister, stepbrother or stepsister, the beneficiary’s father, mother or any ancestor of the beneficiary’s father or mother, the beneficiary’s stepfather or stepmother, the beneficiary’s nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles, the beneficiary’s son-in-law, daughter-in-law, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law or sister-in-law, the spouse of any of these family members, and first cousins. In addition, a Coverdell education savings account may be transferred to the beneficiary’s ex-spouse, in the event of a divorce.

Coverdell education savings accounts are exempt from community property laws.

Income Phaseouts

The exclusion from income for distributions from Coverdell education savings accounts is not subject to a phaseout on the tax-free treatment of the distributions.

There is, however, an income phaseout on contributions to Coverdell education savings accounts. The maximum contribution is reduced proportionately for taxpayers who file federal income tax returns with AGI between $95,000 and $110,000 (single) and between $190,000 and $220,000 (married filing jointly). Married taxpayers who file separate returns may not contribute to a Coverdell education savings account. There is no income limitation on contributions from corporations, trusts and other organizations. The income phaseouts are not adjusted annually for inflation.

A workaround for contributors whose income is above the income phaseouts involves giving the money to the child first. The child can then contribute the money to the child’s own Coverdell education savings account, assuming that the child’s income does not exceed the income phaseouts. 

Expiration

The legislation authorizing the exclusion from income for Coverdell education savings accounts does not expire.

References

Publications

Forms

  • IRS Form 5329, Part V, Additional Taxes on Qualified Plans (Including IRAs) and Other Tax-Favored Accounts, Additional Tax on Excess Contributions to Coverdell ESAs
  • IRS Form 1099-Q, Payments From Qualified Education Programs (Under Sections 529 and 530)

Current Law

  • Internal Revenue Code: 26 USC 530
  • Regulations: None

Legislative History

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