IRS eases strict "use-or-lose" rule for health flexible spending arrangements

Health flexible spending arrangements (health FSAs) are popular savings vehicles for medical expenses, but their use has been held back by a strict use-or-lose rule. The IRS recently announced a significant change to encourage more employers to offer health FSAs and boost enrollment. At the plan sponsor's option, employees participating in health FSAs will be able to carry over, instead of forfeiting, up to $500 of unused funds remaining at year-end.

Health expenses

Health FSAs are designed to reimburse participants for certain health care expenditures, typically expenses that qualify for the medical and dental expense deduction. Medical supplies, such as eye glasses and bandages, are usually treated as qualified expenses. However, nonprescription medicines (other than insulin) are not considered qualified medical expenses.

Health FSAs are often funded through voluntary salary reduction agreements with the participant's employer under a cafeteria plan. In that case, they are very taxpayer-friendly because no federal employment or federal income taxes are deducted from the employee's contribution. The employer may also contribute to a health FSA. However, there are special rules which govern employer contributions.

Typically, participants designate at the beginning of the year the amount they want to contribute to their health FSA and these amounts are deducted from their pay. For 2014, an employee's salary reduction contributions cannot exceed $2,500. The $2,500 cap is very important because cafeteria plans that do not limit health FSA contributions to $2,500 are not treated as cafeteria plans, and all benefits offered under the plan are included in the participants' gross income.

Use-or-lose rule

As mentioned, the use-or-lose rule is a drawback to health FSAs. Unused amounts remaining in the health FSA at year-end are forfeited. Employers are not allowed to refund any unused funds in a health FSA. Critics of the use-or-lose rule argue that it has discouraged participation in health FSAs because many employees do not want to risk forfeiting unused funds. Often, participants have to scramble at year-end to use their health FSA dollars

Grace period option

A few years ago, the IRS modified the use-or-lose rule. The IRS allowed cafeteria plans to adopt a grace period. Participants can use amounts remaining in a health FSA at year-end for up to an additional two months and 15 days. This grace period is optional. Employers are not required to offer the grace period, although many do.

Carryover option

At its option, an employer may now amend its cafeteria plan to provide for the carryover to the immediately following year of up to $500 of any amount remaining unused as of the end of the year in a health FSA. The carryover of up to $500 may be used to pay or reimburse qualified expenses under the health FSA incurred during the entire plan year to which it is carried over. Additionally, the carryover does not count against or otherwise affect the salary reduction limit ($2,500 for 2014) for health FSAs. However, the new rules do not allow participants to cash out unused health FSA amounts or convert them to other types of benefits.

The maximum carryover amount is $500. An employer can choose to offer a $0 carryover, a $500 carryover or any amount in between. As we discussed, the carryover is optional. Employers can choose not to offer any carryover.

Employers cannot offer both the grace period and the carryover. It is a choice of either the grace period or the carryover....or neither. The employer and not the participant decides. In regulations, the IRS described how employers can amend their cafeteria plans to provide for the carryover and how they can, if they choose, replace the grace period with the carryover.

Let's take a look at an example: Jacob participates in a health FSA under his employer's cafeteria plan. At year-end, Jacob has $255 remaining in his health FSA. Jacob's employer never offered a grace period but opted to allow participants to carry over up to $300 of unused health FSA dollars. Jacob can carry over all of his $255 in unused health FSA dollars.

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