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Pros and cons of custodial accounts for minors

Setting up an investment account for your minor child can be a tax-efficient way of saving for college or other expenses. And one of the simplest ways to invest on your child’s behalf is to open a custodial account under the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA) or Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA).

These accounts — which are available through banks, brokerage firms, mutual fund companies and other financial institutions — are owned by the child but managed by the parent or another adult until the child reaches the age of majority (usually age 18 or 21, and age 19 in Alabama).

Custodial accounts can be a convenient way to transfer assets to a minor without the expense and time involved in setting up a trust, but bear in mind that they have downsides too. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons.

PROS

Convenience and efficiency. Establishing a custodial account is like opening a bank account, so it’s quicker, easier and cheaper to set up and maintain than more complex vehicles, such as trusts.

Flexibility. Unlike some savings vehicles, such as Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), anyone can contribute to a custodial account, regardless of their income level, and there are no contribution limits. Also, there are no restrictions on how the money is spent. In contrast, funds invested in ESAs and 529 plans must be spent on qualified education expenses, subject to stiff penalties on unqualified expenditures.

Variety of investment options. Custodial accounts typically offer a broad range of investment options, including most stocks, bonds, mutual funds and insurance-related investments. UTMA accounts may offer even more options, such as real estate or collectibles. ESAs and 529 plans often have more limited investment options.

Tax benefits. Gifts to a custodial account reduce the size of your taxable estate. Keep in mind, however, that gifts in excess of the $16,000 annual exclusion ($32,000 for married couples) may trigger gift taxes or tap some of your lifetime gift and estate tax exemption. Contributions to custodial accounts can also save income taxes: A child’s unearned income up to $2,300 per year is usually taxed at low rates (income above that threshold is taxed at the parents’ marginal rate).

CONS

Other vehicles offer greater tax benefits. Although custodial accounts can reduce taxes, ESAs and 529 plans allow earnings to grow on a tax-deferred basis, and withdrawals are tax-free provided they’re spent on qualified education expenses. In addition, 529 plans allow you to accelerate five years of annual exclusion gifts and make a single tax-free contribution of up to $80,000 ($160,000 for married couples).

Impact on financial aid. As the child’s property, a custodial account can have a negative impact on financial aid eligibility. ESAs and individual 529 plans are usually treated as the parents’ assets, which have less impact on financial aid eligibility.

Loss of control. After the child reaches the age of majority, he or she gains full control over the assets and can use them as he or she sees fit. If you wish to retain control longer, you’re better off with an ESA, an individual 529 plan or a trust.

Inability to change beneficiaries. Once you’ve established a custodial account for a child, you can’t change beneficiaries down the road. With an ESA or individual 529 plan, however, you can name a new beneficiary if your needs change and certain requirements are met.

Weigh your options

A custodial account can be an effective savings tool, but it’s important to understand its pros and cons. Your advisor can help you determine which tool or combination of tools are right for you given your financial circumstances and investment goals.

 

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