Paying for College: What to Do with a Tanking 529

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Buoyed by a run of good news in the stock market, I recently decided to check the balance in my son's 529 college savings account for the first time in many months. To my dismay, the account was still down some 40% from a year ago, far below the amount my husband and I had originally invested. Given the extent of the losses, I couldn't help but wonder: would it make sense to just ditch this thing? (Read "Investing in a 529 College Savings Plan.")

I'm sure I'm not the only one contemplating this question. Named after section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code, these plans can be a terrific tax-advantaged way to save for college, but many of these accounts have been seriously thwacked in the bear market. As of Feb. 28, half of 529 portfolios had one-year returns of -30%, and a third had returns of -40% or less, according to Morningstar, which tracks the performance of over 3,600 plan portfolios. In some cases, 529 investors may not have been well informed of the risks. On April 13, the state of Oregon sued the managers of its 529 plan, OppenheimerFunds, alleging that Oppenheimer took too much risk with its "ultra-conservative" and "conservative" portfolios, alleged mismanagement that Oregon claims resulted in a $36.2 million loss for 529 plan investors. (See how students are paying for college.)

In the hopes of regaining control of how their money is being invested, many families have been asking about the possibility of cashing in their 529 accounts altogether and writing off the loss on their taxes, says Joe Hurley, who runs, a website that provides information and advice about 529 plans and allows investors to compare different state plans. The good news is that for some people, closing an account can result in a significant tax write-off. But as with most things tax-related, the rules are complicated. Here's what to consider before you bail out:

Your chances of getting a tax break. The bad news is that in many cases, investors can't write off as much as they might think. Among the restrictions: you must completely liquidate your account in order to claim a loss. You have to claim it as a miscellaneous deduction, which means you can only deduct losses that exceed 2% of your adjusted gross income (AGI); other miscellaneous deductions can include IRA losses and fees paid to a financial adviser. So if your AGI is $100,000, for example, and your 529 lost $8,000, you'll get a $6,000 write-off at most. Perhaps most important, you can't claim any 529 losses under the alternative minimum tax, or AMT (my husband and I were subject to the AMT this year, so that put the kibosh on the hope of a tax break for us). "The tax treatment is not ideal," says Mark Luscombe, principal tax analyst at CCH. "And it's easy to mess it up." (For a complete rundown of the rules, see IRS Publication 529).

The age of the beneficiary. If your child is young, the account has a long time to bounce back before you'll need the funds for college. If you stand to reap big tax savings, however, liquidating may be worth it since you could later re-invest the money in another 529 account. Just make sure to wait at least 60 days before you open a new 529, or the IRS may consider it a rollover, which isn't deductible for tax purposes.

How soon you need the money. If you need to tap the account in the next year or two, it likely won't have enough time to recover, says Ross Levin, a financial planner in Edina, Minn. One option is to move the remaining funds to a less risky investment within your plan (a new IRS rule allows 529 holders to swap their investments twice this year). But if you're concerned about the conservative options your plan offers, you may be better off cashing in and parking the money in an online savings account or money market fund. Finally, if you have other resources to cover college costs for the next couple of years, says Levin, your best option may be to leave the 529 untouched and hope to make up some of the losses. After all, Levin notes, "You'll see growth in the account again. You just don't exactly know when."

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