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Ways Grandparents Can Help with College Costs

College is expensive. For some fortunate students, grandparents are stepping in to help. This trend is expected to accelerate as baby boomer grandparents start gifting what could be trillions of dollars over the next few decades. Helping to finance a grandchild's college education can bring great personal satisfaction and can be a way for grandparents to minimize potential gift and estate taxes. Here are some common strategies.

Outright cash gifts

One way to contribute is to make an outright gift of cash or securities to your grandchild or his or her parent. To minimize any potential gift tax implications, you'll want to keep your gift under the annual federal gift tax exclusion amount—$13,000 for individual gifts or $26,000 for joint gifts made by both grandparents. Otherwise, a larger gift may be subject to federal gift tax and, for a gift made to a grandchild, federal generation-skipping transfer tax, which is a tax on gifts made to a person who is more than one generation below you.

An outright cash gift to your grandchild or your grandchild's parent will be considered an asset for federal financial aid purposes. Under this aid formula, students must contribute 20% of their assets each year toward college costs and parents must contribute 5.6% of their assets.

Pay tuition directly to the college

If you are considering making an outright cash gift, another option is to bypass your grandchild and pay the college directly. Under federal law, tuition payments made directly to a college aren't considered taxable gifts, no matter how large the payment. This rule is helpful considering that annual tuition at some private colleges is now surpassing the $40,000 mark. Only tuition qualifies for this federal gift tax exemption--room and board, books, and fees aren't eligible.

Aside from the benefit of being able to make larger tax-free gifts, paying tuition directly to the college ensures that your money will be used for education purposes. However, a direct tuition payment might prompt a college to reduce any potential grant award in your grandchild's financial aid package, so make sure to ask the college about the financial aid impact of your gift.

529 college savings plan

A 529 college savings plan is a tax-advantaged savings vehicle that can be a smart way for grandparents to contribute to their grandchild's college education while paring down their own estate. Contributions to your account grow tax deferred and earnings are tax free if the money is used to pay the beneficiary's qualified education expenses (states generally follow this tax treatment as well). Funds can be used at any accredited college in the United States or abroad.

You can open a 529 account yourself and name your grandchild as beneficiary, or you can contribute to an already existing 529 account (e.g., a parent-owned 529 account).

Tip: Under current federal financial aid rules, grandparent-owned 529 plans are not counted as a parent or student asset (only parent-owned and student-owned 529 plans count as assets), but withdrawals from a grandparent-owned 529 plan are counted as student income, which can affect student aid eligibility in the following year (withdrawals from parent-owned and student-owned 529 plans are not counted as student income).

If you have a large sum to gift, 529 plans offer a big advantage. Under special rules unique to 529 plans, you can make a lump-sum gift of up to $65,000 ($130,000 for joint gifts) and avoid federal gift tax by making a special election to treat the gift as if it were made in equal installments over a five-year period (provided you don't make any additional gifts to the same grandchild during the five-year period). And if you happen to be the 529 account owner, you retain control over these funds. For example, if you should have unexpected medical costs, you can withdraw part or all of your lump-sum contribution (however, you will owe income tax and a 10% penalty on the earnings portion of the withdrawal). In addition, your lump-sum gift is considered removed from your estate even though you retain control over the funds as account owner (but if you were to die during the five-year period, a prorated portion of the gift would be recaptured by your estate for estate tax purposes).

Of course, you can contribute smaller, regular amounts to your grandchild's 529 account as well. If you have more than one grandchild, you can open an account for each and limit your annual contributions to each account to $13,000 or $26,000 for joint gifts. Come college time, if one grandchild gets a scholarship, you can change the beneficiary of his or her 529 account to another grandchild or you can withdraw an amount equal to the amount of the scholarship, penalty free.

Note: Investors should consider the investment objectives, risks, charges, and expenses associated with 529 plans before investing. More information about specific 529 plans is available in each issuer's official statement, which should be read carefully before investing.