Starting in 2018, qualified educational expenses for 529 plans will include up to $10,000 a year in tuition and expenses for primary and secondary school expenses (public, private, or religious). Previously, you could only use it towards qualified college expenses. There were also some related changes to ABLE accounts for individuals with special needs – listed here.
Put simply, you can now pay for up to $10k a year of private K-12 school through a 529 plan. If this impacts you, you may consider making a 529 contribution now before December 31st, 2017 as you are allowed annual contributions of $14,000 per person ($28,000 per couple) while still avoiding gift taxes. You would then be able to make contributions in both 2017 and 2018.
Front-loading a 529 early and with a lot of money. The NY Times lays out a scenario where a wealthy family puts in $200,000 at birth (not sure why they use this amount as it would exceed annual gift tax limits even with front-loading) and then uses the money to pay for K-12 private school. This could theoretically save a wealthy family $30,000 in taxes.
If you have that kind of money, it may be worthwhile to explore front-loading, but be careful as their example assumes a reliable 6% return every single year. In the real world, investment returns can be quite volatile, and if you make a $10,000 withdrawal every year, you run the risk of depleting your account entirely before college. Other possible options are to start funding a 529 even before your child’s birth to start accumulating those future tax-free capital gains.
Using the 529 as a just-in-time passthrough. Around 30 states offer a in-state tax benefit on 529 plans. If you are paying for a private school anyway, you may be able to save some money by simply using the 529 as a passthrough account. Contribute to 529, grab the tax benefit, and then immediately withdraw (starting in 2018) to pay for K-12 tuition. Some states like Montana and Wisconsin specifically disallow this in-and-out practice, but most do not (although they could start).
Things can still change. This Reuters article points out that states may change their own laws in response. They could add minimum holding periods, cap their deductions, or add income restrictions. I am also curious as to what, if any public school “expenses” are technically eligible.
Personally, I don’t think this will change my 529 usage plans significantly. My state does not offer a tax benefit, so there is little benefit to the passthrough option. Maybe if short-term rates go up high someday and you can earn 5% in a bank account, it might become worth the effort to park some money in there temporarily. The other primary benefit is federal tax-free investment gains, and it takes a while for that compounding action to accumulate. If I get lucky and my balance gets really big, I could perhaps see taking some money out before college if they end up in private high school. Realistically though, I doubt my balances will greatly exceed four years of college tuition (times three kids!).