Despite the considerable tax benefits 529 college savings plans offer, numerous parents still do not have a 529 plan, a recent survey by Hartford Financial Services Inc. found. Those surveyed had an average age of 43, well within the trailing edge of the boomer generation.
Although Hartford found 73% of parents have started some sort of college savings program, 70% said they were not using a 529 plan, even after the tax benefits of these plans were made permanent by the Pension Protection Act of 2006.
Results from the survey suggest that financial advisors need to educate clients with children in the tax advantages of 529 plans, says Jeff Coghan, director of Smart529 Programs at Hartford. Smart529 is the college savings plan administered for the state of West Virginia by Hartford.
Coghan notes survey results showing 26% of parents working with financial advisors knew a lot about 529 college savings plans, compared to only 15% of those who didn’t work with a financial advisor, Hartford found.
Moreover, 45% of parents working with a financial advisor own a 529 plan, compared to just 26% of those who don’t work with an advisor. Also, 64% of parents using an advisor view the advisor’s 529 plan advice as extremely important.
The financial advisor can play a critical role by helping parents get started and adjust their saving strategies as their savings program builds, Coghan says. Supporting his point is the survey finding that 31% of parents started saving for college as a result of discussions with their financial advisor. Among parents already saving for college, about 25% said they increased their contribution after talking with an advisor.
Discussing college saving with a financial advisor also can strengthen parents’ confidence in their advisor, the survey revealed. Of parents using an advisor, 84% thought their advisor understood their financial situation better after discussing college savings with them.
Another growth opportunity stemming from the 529 market can come from referrals, Coghan notes. Older boomers who are recent grandparents might not only be potential clients for 529s, but might also refer the advisor to their own adult children, who could be prospects for getting an early start on their college savings.
“Ask the 529 client who else might want to contribute to the account, such as godparents or friends looking for a place to do something with their savings,” Coghan says. “This is not always comfortable for parents to do, but it’s often well received.”
He points to the Hartford survey finding that 43% of parents working with an advisor rely on contributions from grandparents to their college savings, either through regular contributions or a lump sum–compared to only 33% not working with an advisor who receive such contributions. In addition, 31% of those working with an advisor report receiving contributions from extended family members, vs. 25% of those not working with an advisor.
Helping boomer clients open 529 plans can put the financial advisor in a position to manage a larger share of the client’s financial resources, Coghan says. Rather than creating a new savings program, a 529 account can often be a rollover opportunity in which assets currently in banks or other institutions, such as certificates of deposit or bonds, can come under the control of the advisor, he notes.
“It’s also an opportunity to build good will,” Coghan says, pointing to the survey finding that most clients thought their advisor knew them better after discussing 529 plans. “If you’re not asking such questions, the client thinks you don’t have their whole financial picture. If you’re going to plan for their future financial needs, you’re leaving something out without college planning.”