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School Stocks: What to Know before Setting Up an ESA

Jan 16, 2017

You have likely heard it countless times before, but get ready to hear it one more time: failure to plan is tantamount to planning to fail. Not many costs associated with a quality education for your children, if any, will actually shrink by the time they finish high school.

A Coverdell Education Savings Account (ESA) allows up to 18 years of $2,000 maximum annual deposits dedicated to covering a sizable range of schooling costs. Any interest, dividends, appreciation, and other earnings generated by deposits remain absolutely tax-free as long as they are withdrawn to fund educational expenses no later than 30 days after the beneficiary turns 30. You can open a Coverdell ESA anytime before your child's 18th birthday, but the sooner you can establish one, the more rewarding it ultimately will be.

Timing Is Everything

Opening an ESA too late and trying to make up for lost time after your child's last year of high school may actually work to your detriment. For one thing, deposits made after your child turns 18 are subject to a 6-percent excise tax. After that, the earnings portion of any funds remaining in the account when the student turns 30 becomes subject to both a 10-percent penalty tax and federal income tax. More importantly, though, a ESA is no different from any other investment product: time is your best friend.

Suppose you open an account as soon as possible after your child is born. Assuming you max out contributions every single year, the principal alone will total $36,000 by the time your beneficiary turns 18. Assuming an 8.00% before-tax return and a 25% marginal tax bracket, your child's trust would eventually accumulate roughly $80,893, compared to the approximately (still impressive) $65,520 a taxable savings account would earn over the same period.

For some perspective, the total deposits alone would rival several states' median household incomes and even eclipse those of several U.S. commonwealths and territories. After taking interest into account, the balance would far outstrip Maryland's top-ranking median income totaling just barely over $70,000.

That kind of savings demands consistent deposits and the discipline not to touch them, but cementing fiscal resources such as those for your child first requires some prudent planning.


We established that 18 years of age is the cutoff for both setting up and paying into a Coverdell ESA. Nothing stipulates that the beneficiary must be your own child or even related to you at all. Meanwhile, depositors must earn modified adjusted gross income under $190,000 to make a full $2,000 yearly contribution - $95,000, if you happen to be a single filer. Households that earn between $190,000 and $220,000 and single filers who claim between $95,000 and $110,000 can gradually phase out the $2,000 yearly deposit limit entirely. Since 2002, amended regulations have also allowed for contributions to both an ESA and 529 plan naming the same beneficiary.

Get this: if your own income is above the allowable maximum, your child can even make a Coverdell ESA contribution instead, provided his or her own earnings fall within the above-stated limits. Unlike a traditional or Roth IRA, nothing stipulates that a contributor has to have any earned income. Just gift the money to your child first. Your child can be named the beneficiary of limitless Coverdell ESAs, provided total contributions remain below the $2,000 limit, but most scenarios won't make the combination of minimums imposed by sponsors and various annual fees worth the trouble.

Starting a Coverdell ESA

Any financial institution that can serve as a traditional IRA's custodian, such as this credit union savings account, can get you started. Your trust's caretaker will invest contributions through the sponsoring institution's available qualifying investments, including mutual funds, certificates of deposit, stocks, and bonds. Life insurance is exempt from ESA investment. Once you complete the sponsor's enrollment paperwork naming the trust's beneficiary and a "responsible individual" trustee, it's time to make your first contribution and plant the seeds of your child's future.

Financial Aid Consequences

All of that being said, keep in mind that our Coverdell ESA comes with financial aid eligibility ramifications if you intend on using the full balance strictly to pay for college. Granted, it's a negligible dent in overall eligibility, but you cannot afford to entirely discount the impact.

Like a 529 plan, your student's Expected Family Contribution (EFC) includes up to 5.64 percent of a Coverdell ESA's value if a parent or student owns the account. You only report the funds of an account owned by another relative once you or your student withdraws funds.

It pays to be judicious when tapping into your balance, even for the expenses the trust is structured to cover. Your federal income tax return will ordinarily exclude withdrawals from Coverdell ESAs owned by a parent or student, but withdrawals from accounts owned by anyone else will be "added back" at up to 50 percent as student income on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid the next year. In more concrete terms, an aunt or grandparent pulling out $15,000 to cover a university bill means a $7,500 increase to the next FAFSA's EFC.

Use as Directed

It should go without saying, but in addition to taking the general long-term ramifications of every withdrawal into account, never forget what the "E" in your Coverdell ESA's name: education.

To maintain tax-free withdrawals and earnings, Coverdell ESA funds must strictly be used for qualified elementary and secondary education expenses (QESEE) or qualified higher education expenses (QHEE).

Let's run those down:


  • Fees, tuition, tutoring, special needs services when required by the beneficiary, books, supplies, and other equipment incurred by enrollment and attendance.
  • Transportation, uniforms, supplementary items and services (including extended day programs), and room and board required or provided by the school.
  • Fees associated with any computer equipment or technology, internet access, and related services used by the beneficiary and family during school years.

Fortunately, the QHEE is much more cut-and-dried:


  • Tuition and fees.
  • Room and broad, as long as the student is enrolled at least half-time (6-8 credit hours per semester, ordinarily).
  • If living off-campus, you can withdraw the amount of room and board costs the school includes in its cost-of-attendance figures.
  • Books and supplies as needed.
  • As of 2015, purchases of computers, software, internet access, and other related equipment are all qualified expenses.
  • Equipment and services addressing the beneficiary's special needs for enrollment or attendance

Remember, a 10-percent penalty tax and federal income tax will apply to all non-qualified withdrawals.

A Word on Credit Unions

We'll close by circling back to one of our earlier points. Yes, you can open a ESA with virtually any financial institution that routinely manages investment products such as IRAs. That doesn't mean some institutions won't provide notable advantages others can't or won't.

If you can, choose a credit union for your Coverdell ESA. Generally speaking, these alternatives to bigger banks offer vastly more personal customer service. Who wouldn't want a locally oriented account custodian that takes the time to get to know your family's education needs as closely as a trusted friend? Just as importantly, credit unions often offer interest rates that banks can't touch, along with minimal transfer and maintenance fees, and deposit insurance up to $250,000. Your ESA is one of the most valuable investments you will ever make, after all. Why not trust it to the most dedicated, personable partners you can?

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