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Question: My client owns a Section 529 plan for the benefit of her daughter. The client paid for the daughter’s college tuition in 2011 out of her own funds, and wants to take a distribution from the 529 plan now to reimburse herself. Would that be a qualified tax-free distribution?
Answer: Probably not.
Distributions from state qualified tuition programs are fully excludable from gross income if the distributions are used to pay “qualified higher education expenses” of the designated beneficiary.
IRS Announcement 2008-09 acknowledges that Section 529 and its regulations are unclear as to whether a distribution, say, in 2012 can be used to pay qualified expenses incurred in 2011 or earlier. The announcement seems to imply that there is a March 31 deadline for paying the qualified expenses of the prior year only.
It is possible that eventually the IRS will issue regulations that cover the question asked. In the meantime, it is safest to recommend to clients that they take 529 plan distributions in the same calendar year that the beneficiary has qualified higher expenses.
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