Unraveling Qualified Expenses for Coverdell ESAs

Guest post written by Alison Brink, copy writer for the Retirement Services division of Ascensus. Alison researches and writes about various IRA, ESA, and HSA topics for Ascensus’ online and printed publications and education materials.

With students back in school and those glaring tuition bills coming due, many of your Coverdell education savings account (ESA) members may be seeking distributions to help pay (or be reimbursed for) their education expenses. And because a designated beneficiary (the child for whom the ESA is established) does not pay taxes on ESA distributions if the assets are used for qualified education expenses incurred at an eligible education institution, members may have questions about whether their expenses are qualified. While the ESA’s designated beneficiary or responsible individual (often a parent or guardian) ultimately is responsible for determining if education expenses are qualified, they often turn to the ESA administrator with questions.

Eligible Education

ESA assets generally can be used for elementary and secondary education, as well as postsecondary education. Some taxpayers save for postsecondary education through qualified tuition programs, commonly referred to as “529 plans.” But 529 plan assets cannot be used for elementary or secondary education.

Eligible Education Institutions

Part of what makes qualified education expenses qualified is the fact that the expenses have to be incurred at an eligible education institution. An eligible elementary or secondary school for ESA purposes is any public, private, or religious school that provides elementary and secondary education (kindergarten through grade 12) as determined under state law. An eligible postsecondary school is any college, university, vocational school, or other postsecondary educational institution that is eligible to participate in student aid programs administered by the Department of Education. An eligible educational institution would include nearly all accredited public, nonprofit, and private postsecondary institutions.

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