With the soaring cost of college tuition rising on a yearly basis, tax-free tuition gifts to children and grandchildren can help them afford such an expensive endeavor, as well as save the generous taxpayers in gift and generation-skipping taxes. Under federal law, tuition payments that are made directly to an educational institution on behalf of a student are not considered to be taxable gifts, regardless of how large, or small, the payment may be.
Code Sec. 2503(e) allows taxpayers the benefit of an unlimited gift tax exclusion for payment of tuition to colleges for students. In this way, a taxpayer can navigate around the annual gift tax exclusion limit. By so doing, a taxpayer can both give an unlimited amount of money for a student’s tuition costs without incurring a gift tax penalty. In addition, a taxpayer can then directly provide that same student with an outright cash gift up to the annual gift tax exclusion amount, without a tax penalty for doing so.
However, a direct tuition payment might prompt a college to reduce any potential grant award in your grandchild’s financial aid package, so make sure to ask the college about the financial aid impact of your gift.
In order to qualify for the gift tax exclusion, the tuition payments must be made directly to a qualifying organization, which is defined in Code Sec. 170(b). A qualifying organization is an institution that normally maintains a regular faculty and curriculum and normally has a regularly enrolled body of pupils or students in attendance at the place where its educational activities are regularly carried on. Therefore, such organizations are not limited to colleges and universities but may include various types and levels of education institutions.
The donor of the gift of tuition does not have to be related to the beneficiary for the gift to be considered tax-free. However, the tuition must be directly paid to the institution. The donee may be enrolled either part-time or full-time.
Amounts ineligible for exclusion
Of important note, reimbursements for tuition paid by someone else is ineligible for tax-free gift exclusion treatment. Further, a transfer to an irrevocable trust established to pay tuition expenses of trust beneficiaries does not qualify for the unlimited exclusion, even if the trustee makes payments directly to the educational institution. In addition, amounts paid for fees, books, supplies or the donee’s living expenses while in school do not qualify for tax-free treatment.
Any contribution to a qualified tuition program on behalf of a designated beneficiary, as well as any contribution to a Coverdell Education Savings Account, is a completed gift of a present interest eligible for the annual gift tax exclusion at the time the contribution is made. However, such contributions are not treated as qualified transfers that are eligible for the educational expense unlimited gift tax exclusion.