Will Obama's 529 Plan Tax Hike Also Hit Disabled Kids?

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Posted by Ryan Ellis on Friday, January 23rd, 2015, 11:37 AM PERMALINK

On top of everything else, it appears that President Obama’s 529 plan tax hike might also fall on–of all things–disabled children and the parents who save for them.

In the most embarrassing of all possible starts to 2015, President Obama’s administration appears to be in full retreat on their proposal to tax middle class college savings plans (known as “529 accounts“).  The final death blow to this reckless and politically suicidal assault on the American Dream came out yesterday when it was revealed by the Wall Street Journal that the Obamas made a $240,000 contribution to the 529 plans of their daughters back in 2007.  There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, but it is a tad hypocritical for Obama to want to deny the middle class their opportunity to save for their own children’s education, be the contributions ever so modest. Even the New York Times, of all outlets, is turning tail.

It can get even worse.

Back in December 2014, a little more than one month ago, President Obama signed into law the “Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act,” which sailed through Congress.  It creates a brand new kind of 529 plan.  Traditional 529 plans are all about saving for college.  An ABLE account will be about saving for kids who will likely never get a “normal” college experience, or anything close to it.  Qualified expenses include things like disability education, housing, transportation, employment support, health and wellness, financial/administrative/legal costs, and even funeral fees.

Like other 529 plans, ABLE account contributions are made after-tax.  The money grows tax-free.  Provided the contributions and earnings are used for qualified disability expenses, withdrawals are tax-free.  They very much resemble Roth IRAs, except the savings intention here is disability costs and not retirement.

The Administration’s plan calls for all earnings distributions on 529 plans to be subject to ordinary income taxation, at rates as high as 39.6 percent.  Will this include the new type of 529 plan signed into law by President Obama just a month ago, the ABLE account?

If the Obama tax hike plan sweeps in ABLE accounts, they may never actually achieve liftoff.  Conventional 529 plans would “dry up” and die off, according to Joe Hurley of the 529 portal website savingforcollege.com. “States that are not able to retain sufficient assets in their 529 plans will have a difficult time keeping their plans open,” Hurley added.

Since ABLE accounts are only a little over a month old, none have actually been established yet by 529 sponsors (i.e., states).  If the tax treatment were to change, there would be no market for ABLE accounts and no incentive to invest resources in rolling them out for parents of disabled kids.

Even if ABLE accounts are excluded from the rest of the president’s tax hike plans for 529s, it would still kill them off.  Since ABLE accounts will only be offered in conjunction with the larger 529 accounts, the death of the latter necessarily means the stillbirth of the former.  It’s like shooting the horse and expecting the cowboy to keep riding.

Was all this done on purpose?  Did anyone in the Obama Administration raise their hand and say “wait, didn’t we just sign a 529 expansion–for disabled children–just before Christmas?”

Who knows?  My guess is “no.”  Considering how ill-conceived and botched this entire fiasco has been, crediting officials with thinking this deeply about the topic is a bridge too far.

Assuming that this 529 plan tax hike (including de facto ABLE account preemptive repeal) remains in the president’s budget, it will be fully fleshed out in the Treasury Department’s post-budget “Blue Book,” where all stupid tax ideas slouch toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born.  Only then will we find out for sure if some technocratic nimrods at the White House accidentally decided to tax the tax-free savings accounts of disabled children, or whether they were even more reality-addled and did it on purpose.

But can someone in the press please ask them between now and then?

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