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What Happens to an HSA when Owner Dies?

An HSA, or Health Savings Account, can be an excellent way to save for medical expenses. For wage earners with high-deductible HSA-eligible health insurance plans, the IRS allows generous contributions on a pre-tax basis to an HSA ($3,600 per year for individuals, $7,200 per year for a family plan as of 2021), according to the article “HSAs and Estate Planning” from The Street. The money can be withdrawn, including both principal and earnings, with no taxes, as long as the withdrawals are used for qualified medical expenses.

Seems like a no brainer, doesn’t it? This unique account allows for triple-tax savings. However, when HSAs become large, savvy planning is needed to understand how they work in estate planning and taxes. Here’s a look at what happens to an HSA when the owner passes.

The inherited HSA becomes the surviving spouse’s HSA, if the spouse had been designated as the beneficiary on the HSA. The money remains in the HSA and the spouse’s name is added to the account. They may make tax-free distributions from the HSA to pay for their own qualified medical expenses, as if they were the original owner. The HSA is not included in the estate, since it has become the property of the surviving spouse.

What if a non-spouse is the designated beneficiary? Upon the death of the original owner, the health savings account is no longer considered an HSA for tax purposes. An immediate and taxable distribution of the entire amount goes to the non-spouse beneficiary. The beneficiary must include the HSA balance in their taxable income in the year of the original owner’s death.

The normal 20% penalty applying to distributions for non-qualified medical expenses doesn’t apply.  The beneficiary pays income taxes at their marginal tax rate on the full amount of the HSA balance.  However, at least there are no penalties.

However, any portion of an inherited health savings account balance used to pay for outstanding medical expenses of the account owner within one year of the date of death (DOD) is not taxable to the non-spouse beneficiary. In this case, the HSA is also not included in the estate, since it is fully taxed to the non-spouse beneficiary on their own individual tax return.

If the HSA owner designates their estate as the beneficiary, the account balance is included in the owner’s gross income for the year of their death. The HSA is still not included in the estate and is treated as income for the last year of their life, when it is reported as income on the final tax return.

A charity may be listed as a beneficiary for an health savings account. Any charity will receive the full amount of the HSA with no taxes or penalties.

For most people, it’s best to use the HSA as you need it. Once you reach age 65, you are no longer subject to the 20% penalty for withdrawals not spent on medical expenses. If you have a sizable HSA, talk with your estate planning attorney on how to efficiently use it, while living and for other beneficiaries after you have died.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 9, 2021) “HSAs and Estate Planning”

Suggested Key Terms: HSA, Health Savings Account, Health Insurance Plans, IRS, Pre-Tax, Designated Beneficiary, Estate Planning Attorney, Withdrawals, Qualified Medical Expenses, Date of Death, DOD, Distribution, Inherited

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