JANUARY 31, 2011 VOLUME 18 NUMBER 4
One question we are frequently asked: isn’t it a good idea to set aside money for a child or grandchild, and isn’t a UTMA (Uniform Transfers to Minors Act) account a simple way to do that? OK — that’s really two questions. Our answers: Yes, it is a good idea to set aside money. Yes, the UTMA account is a simple way to do it. Don’t set up a UTMA account, however, until you understand the consequences.
There are confusing issues about UTMA accounts. Sometimes the confusion is heightened by the fact that each of the 48 states which have adopted versions of the UTMA Act has changed it a little bit — so what is true in Arizona may not be true in another state (and vice versa). Rather than indulge in all that confusion, however, we are going to tell you in straightforward language what to watch for in Arizona. Be careful about applying these principles to other states’ UTMA acts.
First, the good news. Here are the positive things about Arizona UTMA accounts:
- They are inexpensive to set up and to administer. They do not require a lawyer, and avoid courts and formal accounting requirements altogether. All you have to do to create an Arizona UTMA account is to include the name of a custodian, the name of the beneficiary, and the letters UTMA in the title. This will work: “John Jones as custodian pursuant to the Arizona UTMA for the benefit of Marie Smith.”
- A UTMA account can simplify the gifting of substantial amounts of money by multiple family members. Set up an account for your 2-year-old, and all four grandparents can put $13,000 each into the account each year (using 2011 numbers — the maximum non-taxable gift may go up next year or in future years).
- They automatically end at 21, so the money will not be tied up indefinitely. One of the points of confusion: sometimes UTMA accounts end at 18 in other states, and in some circumstances in Arizona. But if you are putting your money into an account for a minor in Arizona, the end date is age 21.
- They encourage regular savings by simplifying the process. Open an account with, say, $1,000, and put $50/month into the account. You won’t save a fortune in 15 years, but you will have $10,000 that you wouldn’t otherwise have saved without this discipline. Plus the earnings and growth on the investment, as a bonus.
- If the minor receives public benefits like SSI or Medicaid, the money will usually not be treated as “available” (and therefore reduce or eliminate benefits) until age 21.
Of course it’s not all good news. Here are some problems or limitations:
- The money in the UTMA account will need to be reported on the minor’s FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form when applying for student aid — and it will be treated as completely available to the student. In other words, the very existence of a UTMA account may prevent receipt of needs-based student aid.
- The income in the UTMA will be taxed at the minor’s parents’ income tax rates. Unless, of course, there is so much money in the minor’s name that his or her rate is higher — then the UTMA account will be taxed at that higher rate.
- The minor may have to file an income tax return if the UTMA money produces significant income. The UTMA account may be used to pay any income tax due, and the tax preparation costs, but it will require that a return be prepared.
- At age 21 the (former) minor is entitled to receive all the money. Period. It doesn’t matter if he or she has become a drug addict, a spendthrift or a cult member.
- If the (former) minor receives public benefits like SSI or Medicaid, at age 21 the UTMA account becomes an “available” resource and may compromise those benefits.
- If the UTMA custodian is the parent of the minor (which is by far the most common arrangement), then there may be additional complications in how the money can be used and/or what tax effect the money might have. Since a parent has an obligation to support his or her minor children, the UTMA account generally can not be used by a parent/custodian in ways that reduce or satisfy that support obligation. If, on the other hand, the donor of the money acts as custodian, he or she may not have gotten the money out of his or her estate (which is usually one intention on the donor’s part).
- Although UTMA accounts are usually seen as simple mechanisms avoiding lawyers and conflict, the custodian still has an obligation to give the minor (or his or her guardian) account information. Thinking of giving a divorced and non-custodial parent money for the benefit of his or her minor child? Know that you are inviting a dispute between the custodial parent and the UTMA custodian over how the money is invested and spent (or not spent).
- What happens if the custodian dies or becomes incapacitated? There is no easy mechanism to select a successor custodian; it may require a court proceeding to name a successor. A fourteen-year-old minor may be able to select his or her own custodian, which could raise concerns for a thoughtful donor. (Note: Arizona law does allow the current custodian to name his or her own successor custodian, but few do. If you are planning on setting up a UTMA account, insist that the custodian select a successor.)
- What happens if the beneficiary dies before reaching age 21? The money goes to his or her estate — which may require a probate proceeding (if the total is over $50,000 in Arizona) and usually means that the money will be split between the child’s parents. That may be fine, but it may not be what the donor intends or wants.
- The effect of interstate proceedings is unclear. If you live in New Mexico and set up a UTMA account in an Arizona bank with an Arizona custodian for a minor who lives in Iowa, what happens when your custodian moves to Wisconsin? What courts might the custodian have to answer to, and whose law applies in the case of a disagreement? Fortunately, this problem seldom arises — there are few legal proceedings involving UTMA disputes. But they do happen, and increasingly so in an increasingly mobile society.
What are your alternatives to a UTMA account? Consider 529 plans for educational purposes, and separate trusts if the money is intended to be for more general use. For a child who earns income an IRA might even be an appropriate choice — if the child earns $3,000 in a given year, he or she can contribute up that amount to an IRA (and the source of the money does not have to be the earnings). Talk to your financial adviser and your lawyer about the cost of the various options, the problems they raise, and the best alternative in your circumstances.