The misconception of UTMA and UGMA accounts: what you need to know

KJ: A bit shocking of a headline I imagine for anyone who has setup an UTMA or UGMA account for their son, daughter, niece, nephew, grandchild, cousin, whomever. In theory, I like the concept of an UTMA and UGMA account, but in reality, I think they are highly over utilized for what their intended purpose is.

Short for Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA) or Uniform Gift to Minors (UGMA), it even says it in the name that it’s a gift or transfer TO the minor.

So, what is the misconception? With an UTMA or UGMA account, any money you gift to the account is considered an irrevocable gift to the beneficiary. That’s right, it is a gift of money (or investments) that you have given to a minor, and it’s up to a designated ‘custodian’ (i.e. generally the parent) who oversees the account on behalf of the minor until they are of age.

Sure, it’s a great way to potentially help set aside some designated funds for a minor, but once the minor reaches the age of majority (depends on the state, but it is either 18 or 21), then they legally have full control of the account to do whatever they may want to do with the account. Woah. Anything? Yep!

One nice feature is that you can use the funds for the benefit of the minor at any age (can be junior high, high school, college, etc.) for living expenses unlike a 529 plan that must be used for qualified higher education expenses. See also our post on into to funding education where we also talk about other higher education funding accounts and their pros/cons.

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An UTMA/UGMA becomes the child’s account
While traditionally common to help set aside some funds for education for a child, many parents don’t often realize that the account is legally the child’s to use however they would want once they reach a certain age. Plus, if the parent wants to recapture some of the funds (say it wasn’t all used for education or other support for the child), then it is up to the minor to actually gift the money back to the parents! Sure, a saving grace is often that the child probably has no idea how to access the funds unless the parent discusses it with them, but still. They might begin to wonder why they have a 1099 for an account in their name!

Taxation implications
There really aren’t too many positive income tax implications for an UTMA/UGMA. The first $1,000 of gains/income each year (for 2014) is tax-free, and the second $1,000 is taxed at the child’s tax rates (typically very, very low), but any gains above that are taxed at the parent’s income tax rates. It prevents parents from being able to shift a lot of assets to their child to avoid a higher income tax bracket.

Know the restrictions
While I’m not 100% anti-UTMA and UGMA accounts – in fact, we have one setup for my nieces – the person setting them up often doesn’t quite realize the implications for how the account can be used. For us, Angela and I wanted it to be used for whatever K&G may want when they get to a certain age – be it school, help with a car down payment, help with a house down payment, etc. We knew the implications of setting up the account and how it may ultimately be used beforehand.

Consider other options
Sure, these account types CAN be appropriate from time-to-time to help fund education for a child, and they can be appropriate for a parent truly wanting to gift some funds to their child to use however they want.

However, for those parents hoping to exclusively use it for higher education costs and to potentially “recapture” whatever may be left, there are much better uses of the funds. Maybe a 529 plan would be more suitable (where the donor continues to control the account after the beneficiary is of the age of majority), and if you wanted to gift the account back to yourself at the end of the time period, you generally can find a way to do so much easier (noting there could be some gift tax and income tax implications for earnings in the 529 plan account not used for higher education).

With a 529 plan, you can also reassign the beneficiary to another child, relative, etc. if the first child either doesn’t go to college or attends a less expensive college than you planned (woohoo for your budget!). Something you don’t have the ability to do with an UTMA/UGMA.

UTMA/UGMA accounts may impact financial aid options
One factor impacting your out-of-pocket education costs is eligibility for financial aid. A downside to the UTMA/UGMA accounts is that the value of an UTMA/UGMA account may reduce the child’s ability to receive financial assistance in college. In fact, it isn’t uncommon to see financial aid reduced by 20%+ of the value that is owned in an UTMA/UGMA.

    Do you have an UTMA or UGMA setup for anyone?
    What made you decide to open that account type?
    If you chose a 529 plan, why?

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