Same Limitations on Annual Rollovers of IRAs Apply to Coverdell ESAs

Following the Bobrow v. Commissioner (TC Memo 2014-21) decision, taxpayers discovered that, despite what the applicable IRS publication said, that once a taxpayer had completed a rollover from an IRA account the taxpayer had to wait another year to make a second rollover—even if that rollover came from a different IRA account.

But traditional IRAs aren’t the only type of tax advantaged account for which rollovers are allowed—Coverdell Education Savings Accounts (the accounts originally known as Education IRAs) are also eligible for rollover treatment found at IRC §530(d)(5) that is very similar to the language found at §408(d)(3)(B) the court opined on in the Bobrow case.  So do the same restrictions apply?

In Program Manager Technical Advice 2016-10 the IRS national office decided that the treatment should be the same in the case of a Coverdell Education Savings Account.  The advice notes:

There is no published guidance interpreting the § 530(d)(5) limitation on rollovers. However, Publication 970, Tax Benefits for Education states that only one rollover per Coverdell ESA is allowed during a 12-month period.

In light of the similarity of the language of §§ 408(d)(3)(B) and 530(d)(5), we believe that, with respect to rollovers described in § 530(d)(5), only one rollover per individual per year is permitted.

The memorandum goes on to suggest potential revisions to the publication to clarify this issue.  It continues:

In the event you wish to update Publication 970, we suggest using the following language in both the What's New section and in the "Caution" box under Rollovers and Other Transfers section of Chapter 7:

“You can make only one rollover from a Coverdell ESA to another Coverdell ESA in any 12-month period regardless of the number of Coverdell ESAs you own. However, you can make unlimited transfers from one Coverdell ESA trustee directly to another Coverdell ESA trustee because such transfers are not considered to be distributions or rollovers. The once in any 12-period limitation rule does not apply to the rollover of a military death gratuity or payment from Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI).”

The advice seems to be valid due to the very similar language found in the applicable Code sections—whatever Congress meant for IRAs in this regard seemingly should apply to ESAs.

Coverdell ESAs are unique among the education savings programs because their funds can be withdrawn for use for paying education expenses for elementary and secondary schools, rather than being limited to post-secondary education.  However, the contribution is subject to a relatively low annual limit and using the funds prior to the beneficiary entering college greatly reduces the main benefit of tax free growth during the accumulation phase.  Once the elementary and secondary education benefit is removed, there are few advantages (and many disadvantages) to an ESA vs. a §529 plan.

Despite these limitations, some taxpayers have established these accounts, so advisers need to remind these taxpayers that if they plan to remove the funds to roll them into another ESA they will be subjected to the same restrictions as apply to rollovers from standard IRA accounts.