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  • Writer's pictureBridget Sullivan Mermel CFP(R) CPA

Convert 529 to Roth | How's This Going to Work?

One of the new provisions o the Secure Act 2.0 is that 529 College Savings Plans are now going to be able to be rolled over into Roth IRAs. This is a big planning idea. But financial planners are scratching their collective heads. How is this going to work?

We've got a special guest and Roth expert, Sean Mullaney, in to talk it through.

Secure Act 2.0 came in at end of 2022. Now we’ll be able take 529s and covert them into Roths. We talk about what the rules are, when this starts, and what we think might happen as this planning opportunity develops.

We talk about the problem, the solution, what we know about the rules and what we think will happen. We’ll talk about what we’re going to be looking for with further regulations from the IRS.

Our guest is Sean Mullaney!

You can find out more about him here!

Twitter: Sean Money and Tax

00:00 Welcome

01:21 What’s the problem?

02:20 Solution

02:53 2 Big Caveats

04:36 This is good for…

07:48 Problem!

John's firm website:

For advisors around the US:

Thanks for watching and please subscribe!


John: One of the new provisions of the Secure Act 2.0 is that 529 plans that are used for college savings can now be rolled over in some fashion into Roth IRAs. This could be a really big planning item, and that's what we're going to talk about on today's episode of Friends Talk Financial Planning. Hi, I'm John Scherer, and I run a fee-only financial planning practice in Middleton, Wisconsin.

Bridget: And I’m Bridget Sullivan Mermel, and I've got a fee-only financial planning practice in Chicago, Illinois. Before we get going, let's remind everybody to please subscribe. It helps us with YouTube. We've got a special financial planning guest today and that's Sean Mullaney. Sean, you should introduce yourself. And then let's kick off our description about the 529 to Roth IRAs.

Sean: Hi, I'm Sean Mullaney. I'm a financial planner with Mullaney Financial Attacks. I’m based in Los Angeles, California.

John: Great. I’m really excited to have you on the show here, Sean. And the Secure Act 2.0 came crashing in at the end of the year. 4000 some pages, a lot of stuff to go through trying to figure all these things out. One of the things I know has been getting a lot of press is this idea that we can take 529 plan money, college savings, and if we don't need it for college, it can go into the Roth IRA, but it's not quite as simple as that, right? Can you just give us a breakdown on sort of what the big picture rules are?

Sean: Yeah. And let's go back just a little bit here and say, “Well, what the heck is the problem?” The problem is that no one knows what college costs, so folks fund 529, 5, 10, 15, 18 years before junior goes to college. And so you put some money in there, hopefully it grows tax deferred and then ultimately tax free. And then, maybe junior got a scholarship, maybe he went to state school instead of private school, all these sorts of things. And so we don't know exactly what's going to happen in terms of account size in the 529 versus college tuition that's going to be paid.

And so sometimes you could have amounts left over in a 529 after junior graduates. And then the question is, does he go to graduate school? Does he not go to graduate school? Is there a grandson or another sibling? Could we change the beneficiary in the 529? There're these issues of saying, “Wait a minute. We've just over funded this 529. What do we do?” Congress has entertained this idea, and now they've passed a provision that says up to $35,000 per beneficiary can be moved from the 529 to the beneficiaries Roth IRA.

And it's a limited way of bailing out money from overfunded 529s into Roth IRAs where it retains the tax-free growth, and it's for the benefit of the beneficiary. But they realize, wait a minute, this is a pretty good deal for taxpayers, so we're going to put some bells and whistles and conditions on it. And I would say the two biggest ones would be that the 529 itself has to be at least 15 years old. That's a big one.

And then the overall limit, which is the $35,000. And you can only do Roth IRA contributions for the beneficiary. So this is not free by any means, rather it replaces the beneficiaries annual Roth IRA contribution, so using today's number, $6,500 for 20 something. If you were to use this maneuver, it's $35,000 lifetime, but only $6,500 this year, and then the beneficiaries themselves doesn't get to make their own Roth IRA contribution. Lots of stuff to unpack here.

Bridget: Yeah. Wait, and I have one, too, that I think is important; I'm going to put in two. One is that this doesn't start—the 529 to Roth IRA—until 2024.

Sean: Yes.

Bridget: Second thing is that not everything has worked out yet about what's going to happen.

Sean: 100%.

Bridget: But we know the IRS will issue guidelines about what is allowed, and they'll probably be debated, and it might not even be all settled up for even a year or two later, so this is going to be a true episode of Friends Talk Financial Planning, because we're all financial planners talking amongst ourselves to try to figure out how we can use this for clients. What do you think? What do you think will ultimately happen? Some things are known, but some things are not.

Sean: I would start off with two things. One, this is a great bailout technique. If we're in a position today where we've had a 529 for a number of years and our child got a scholarship or maybe did college in three years instead of four, that sort of thing, great, we now have a bailout technique, and we'll find out the details later, but this is a good tool in the toolbox, if nothing else. This is good news; it's not bad news. That's the first thing. But then do we say this is an affirmative planning tool? I'm not there yet, and I don't think I'm ever going to get there. Now, we could talk about that. If you go online, there's scuttlebutt about, well, it's the beneficiary. In theory, I could be the beneficiary of my own 529.

I'm in my 40s, I'm never going back to college again, but there's nothing really stopping me from setting up a 529 for my own benefit. Maybe I do this? I don't think that's a wise tack to take at all. I think the IRS, in theory, could come out with regulations or other guidance stopping that, but even if they don't, I would say, “Look, it's overly elaborate.” I'm going to be able to contribute to my own Roth IRA as long as I have compensation income anyway. So why do I need to take this thing and deal with a 15-year rule. So that's where I'm at today, but things can change, and all three of us and all other practitioners are still figuring this all out.

Bridget: Yeah, that 15-year rule really discourages people from saying, “Okay, I'm going to put money in this in a 529 that I create just for this tax benefit, just to try to get more money in my Roth.” From a tax planning standpoint, it's hard to tax plan 15 years on a new strategy that you're not sure will work out. What if this whole thing goes away, and now I've got a 529?

Sean: And I would also question just how much tax are you saving? So let's just say that I figure it out. I take out my financial calculator. I do some net present value calculations, so I fund a 529 today so that it will produce a stream of income, you know, in 15, 16, 17, 18 years, that roughly equates to what the Roth IRA limit will be. I bet if we did that and we said, well, because you don't put $35,000 in, you'd put with those numbers maybe $15,000 or $20,000 in, so you'd be saving the tax on $15,000 or $20,000 of productive assets in today's low yield world with qualified dividend income rates.

It turns out you're probably not saving all that much money. So that's part of the reason. Even if the IRS blesses this thing 100%—yeah, go crazy—I just don't see the planning benefits in today's world. Now, in theory, yes, if we go back to 10% yields and they get rid of qualified dividend income rates and now we're at 40% ordinary rates—just change some of the inputs—you could have a nice planning opportunity, but I don't see it in today's world.

John: Yeah, it's not a slam dunk, for sure. The other thing, and as you talked about, Sean, it's not like I can take $35,000, and just plug it into my Roth IRA; it replaces my Roth IRA contribution. And if I understand it correctly, that means that I have to have earned income in order to do that, just like a regular Roth contribution, so it doesn't work for, grandma and grandpa, saying, “I'll fund this for my grandkids and then transfer it back over to me as a beneficiary.” If you're retired or out of work in some fashion, this option goes away.

So, you know, again, as a long-term planning strategy there're some difficulties. I think you used the term or if you didn't use it, something similar, the safety valve. In the past, we would say, “Don't save too much in the 529 because if you don't need it can be kind of tricky to deal with that. And if you take it out, you have penalties and interest.” Right now, you go, “All right, we don't have to worry too much about over saving, because there is a safety valve,” but this is not necessarily saying, “Hey, here's a super financial planning opportunity.” That's what I think as I'm hearing our conversation today.

Sean: Yeah. I would say this is a bailout technique. If anyone out there has a 529, Secure 2.0 is good news that you need to wait to hear about the details. Generally speaking, this is good news, but if you're sitting out there today without a 529 and you're thinking about 529, I would say this only moves the needle a little bit—not much. And the other thing to keep in mind, too, is how many people out there have the financial resources to pay not only for their child's college, but also $35,000 of their retirement savings.

Now, yes, there are definitely people out there in that boat, but not that many people actually have sufficient financial resources today to do that. So I think that's another way of saying, “Hey, let's just calm down a little bit here and really rethink this a little bit. And let's start with the premise that this is a bailout technique and probably not, at least right now, a planning technique.”

Bridget: Yeah, but I think it is a good bailout technique for people in certain situations. I know someone who is a middle-income person who happens to be in the situation where they put money in the 529, and it went up a lot because it's been a bull market during the time that they were really investing in it. And then the college plans of their child changed, they said, “Wow. What do we do?” And they can, I think, really be helped by this. And it is a situation that the whole rule is designed for.

They're not uber wealthy. It wasn't something that they had planned. It was more like,” Oops, what happened? I guess we had some good luck, but we don't really want to use this all for education now. We'd like to open it up.” And they're not quite retired yet, so they still have some earned income. That's actually the thing that I'm a little worried about is this earned income part. What if you have a child when you're older and you don't know how this is all going to play out and you want to retire?

Sean: Well, and also think about the beneficiary for a second. So maybe it's a modest income family and the child becomes a teacher, and for whatever reason the 529 was overfunded. If mom and dad take it back, now we've got, like you said, John, ordinary income tax on the earnings, a penalty on the earnings. So maybe what we do is we say, “Well, daughter is a teacher, son is a teacher, and they just don't have that much income.” Well, now we have a way to fund their Roth IRA every year for the first five, six, seven years of their career. We've now really helped them out, and we've gotten them a Roth IRA contribution when they may otherwise not have been able to afford it.

So, yeah, this is great in those situations where, like I said from the beginning, we just don't know the exact dollar amount on college and people have over saved or it's not even necessarily over saving it's, like you said, Bridget, circumstances change, right? They got a scholarship; they went for three years instead of four. All these things happen, and so it's good that this exists. And you also said, Bridget, the IRS and treasury are going to have to issue a lot of guidance on this thing, so as of this recording, none of the three of us are fully burst in this, we're all just talking about it, like friends talking financial planning, and trying to learn about it together.

Bridget: Well, one of the other things that I'm going to be watching for is the conditions around the beneficiary, because right now you can change the beneficiary. There's the owner of the 529 and the beneficiary. Typically, the owner is one of the parents or maybe a grandparent, and then the beneficiary is the child or grandchild. The owner can change the beneficiary, so right now, the owner could change the beneficiary to be themselves. It's got to be a niece or nephew in your group. I couldn’t change mine to you, Sean, or to you, John, but I could change it to my husband or to one of my other nieces or nephews.

I don't know about great nieces, so there're some limits, but it'll be interesting to see that unfold. And how long do they have to be a beneficiary before you can do the Roth roll over for them? I think the intent of it is that you can change the beneficiary to be yourself and then use that instead of Roth contributions. That's what I think the intent is. Or keep the beneficiary as your child, and like what you were saying, Sean, fund their Roth contributions when they're starting out; they’ve got earned income. But I think right around that is one of the big things that I'll be looking for.

John: Yeah. One of the things I really enjoy about this conversation is all three of us in our practices aren't tied to the investment. That is not the core of what we do for clients. It's these planning things. And so many folks in our world where when they talk about financial planning, it’s asking, “How are we doing for the investments?” So I really appreciate that this is one of the focuses of what we talk about: the real planning that makes a difference for clients. And both Bridget and I have talked about this in our show a lot. Sean, it has been really great to have you on the show to share your expertise. Again, this is Sean Mullaney. For folks that want to get in touch with you, Sean, how can they do that?

Sean: Thanks so much for having me on, John and Bridget. There are three ways you can reach out. I'm on Twitter: Sean Money and Tax. You can get me at my financial planning firm, Mullaney Financial and Tax at, or my blog, which focuses on tax and financial independence,

John: That's great. We'll put those in our show notes here, and don't forget to hit that subscribe button. Thanks again, Sean.

Sean: Thank you, guys.

At Sullivan Mermel, Inc., we are fee-only financial planners located in Chicago, Illinois serving clients in Chicago and throughout the nation. We meet both in-person in our Chicago office and virtually through video conferencing and secure file transfer.

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