Sunday, May 12, 2024

Is aunt obligated to give nephew money intended for education?

Are you obligated to make good on a promise if the person you promised doesn’t hold up their end of the agreement?

Many years ago, a reader we’re calling Rebecca set up an educational savings account (ESA) for her nephew to support his college education. The account stipulates that it is to be used for education-related expenses.

Rebecca’s nephew has made it clear to her that he has no plans to go to college. Since he has chosen not to go to college, Rebecca asks: “Should I still give him the money?”

In a subsequent email exchange, Rebecca clarified that the ESA she set up was a Coverdell ESA, which has its own set of rules and restrictions. I am not an expert in investments, taxes or ESAs such as the Coverdell ESA Rebecca set up for her nephew. Whatever Rebecca decides to do, she should read the fine print of her account or consult a financial services professional so she can fully understand how best to do what she wants to do.

Rebecca’s nephew knows about the ESA she set up for him. She wrote that she told him she would not release any funds to him until he went to college. But she adds: “I doubt he remembers.”

My understanding is the Coverdell ESAs allow for any balances in an account be transferred to another family member younger than 30 to use for educational expenses. Rebecca wrote that she is considering transferring the money to her niece who is graduating from high school in June and scheduled to attend college in the fall.

Rebecca adds that she promised her nephew “a small bit, $1,000” even if he doesn’t use it for college. If she takes the $1,000 from the ESA and it’s not used for educational purposes, she may face a penalty and be obligated to pay taxes on it. Again, I’m not a financial planning expert, so Rebecca should check to make sure that she doesn’t do anything that gets her into an unexpected financial tangle.

If Rebecca made clear to her nephew that the funds she set aside were only to be used for his college education, she should feel no obligation to give him the money for some other purpose. It’s unclear if she put a time limit by which he must use the funds. If she didn’t, she could decide to tell him that the money will be there to cover some educational expenses when and if he decided to go to college, although she should check to see by what age the money needs to be used.

Before she makes any promises to her niece, the right thing is for Rebecca to decide what she plans to do with the funds and her nephew and to make that clear to him. While he might be disappointed, because the account was always set up as an education savings account, the use of any funds from it were always clear.

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy, emeritus, at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues.

Do you have ethical questions that you need to have answered? Send them to

Follow him on Twitter @jseglin


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