HSAs (“Health Savings Accounts”) are growing in popularity as Americans are discovering significant tax savings with these accounts. Why are they popular? There are many reasons why; some well known and others not so well known.
Let’s start with the primary benefits that are generally well known:
First, contributions to an HSA are fully deductible regardless of your income, and there is no high-income phase-out. The deduction also applies whether you itemize on your tax return or not, so everyone gets to use it. This isn’t the case for other major deductions like charitable contributions or mortgage interest, which only apply if you itemize on your tax return and itemizing is getting less common after tax reform that was enacted in late 2017. The other commonly known benefit of the HSA is that it can grow from the investments tax-free and comes out entirely tax-free to pay for or to reimburse the account owner for their qualifying medical expenses. For a quick summary of the basics and for qualifying rules, check out my partner Mark J. Kohler’s article here.
Now, lets discuss the additional benefits of an HSA that aren’t as well known:
You don’t need earned income to contribute to an HSA
Contrary to retirement plan rules for IRAs and 401(k)s, which require you to have earned income (i.e. wage, self-employment income) to contribute, you do not need to have earned income to contribute to an HSA. You can make the contribution from any source and that contribution will be a deduction against other income on your tax return (i.e. rental income, investment income, etc.).
Your spouse can inherit your HSA with no tax due
If you’ve built up an HSA that you don’t end up using, you can pass the HSA on to your spouse. A spouse can inherit the HSA and can transfer it over to an HSA in their name. The surviving spouse can then use the funds for their qualifying medical expenses during their lifetime. If the account is inherited by a non-spouse beneficiary, then the account is considered fully taxable to the person receiving the account. Non-spouse beneficiaries (i.e. children) are allowed to use the account to pay for the deceased account owner’s qualifying medical expenses for up to one year of the date of death as medical bills and expenses are determined, and then any remaining balance is distributed to the non-spouse beneficiaries and is subject to taxation.
You can self-direct your HSA and invest it into real estate or other alternative assets
Many HSA account owners just let their HSA funds sit in a savings account or they invest into mutual funds. Some place their HSA funds into a brokerage account,and buy and sell stock. And others are investing them into real estate, private LLCs, precious metals, private equity, venture capital or start-ups. Like a self-directed IRA, an HSA can be invested into all of these alternative assets and are subject to the same prohibited transaction rules and UBTI tax as IRAs and other accounts. We’ve been advising clients for years on how to self-direct their HSA and are now helping clients establish self-directed HSA accounts at Directed IRA & Directed Trust Company. We’ve seen account holders invest them into private placements, real estate, and into HSA-owned LLCs.
When you establish an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account you are required to designate the beneficiary of that account so that the institution/custodian holding the account knows who will receive the account upon your death. You will die one day (sorry for the bad news), and without a properly completed beneficiary designation, your account will be stuck and won’t be able to be moved until a probate court orders otherwise. The form can be completed easily, so make sure you take care of this important step when establishing your retirement accounts and bank accounts.
What’s a beneficiary designation?
A beneficiary designation is simply a written and signed statement placed on record with your account custodian that specifies who receives your account upon your death. Beneficiary designations are used on IRA accounts, 401(k) accounts, HSA accounts, and life insurance policies. Beneficiary designations are used by IRA custodians, 401(k) account custodian/administrators, banks/credit unions, and life insurance companies to pass the deceased persons account on to the person(s) designated on the form without reference to the deceased person’s will, trust, and without the involvement of the probate courts. As a result, your beneficiary designation form is a powerful instrument.
You can list a primary beneficiary and secondary beneficiaries. A primary beneficiary is the first person whom you list, and this person or persons receive the account upon your passing. A secondary (aka “contingent”) beneficiary is someone you list who receives the account if the primary beneficiary is not living. For example, a common way to list your beneficiary designations is to list your spouse as your primary beneficiary and your children as your secondary beneficiary. If your spouse is not living when you die, then your account passes to your secondary beneficiary.
To have a valid beneficiary designation you must ensure the following:
- Designation: Use your institution’s/custodian’s form and designate the person(s) you desire as your beneficiary by listing their name, city/state, date of birth, and relationship to you. You can list one beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries in percentages. So, for example, if you had two children you wanted to receive the account, you would list them as 50% each on the designation form.
- Sign the designation: This may be eSigned using an eSign method accepted by your institution/custodian.
- Spousal waiver where applicable: If you have a spouse and you HAVE NOT listed your spouse as your primary beneficiary, then your spouse must sign a spousal waiver agreeing to someone else being listed as the primary beneficiary and your spouse’s signature on the waiver must be notarized. This is required as a matter of law. Failure to provide the waiver will result (at best) to your surviving spouse receiving at least half of your account upon your passing with the rest passing to your secondary beneficiaries.
- Coordinate with your estate plan: If you list your trust for estate planning as the beneficiary of your IRA, 401(k), or other retirement account, you must provide a copy of the trust to your institution/custodian. The trust must have readily identifiable beneficiaries who receive your account upon your passing and must be considered a see-through trust (most revocable living trusts are).
The beneficiary designation is the “trump card”
Your beneficiary designation is the “trump card” when it comes to estate planning documents. For example, your beneficiary designation on your retirement account or bank account will control over a will which states someone different is to receive all your assets. As a result, it is critical that you provide a beneficiary designation for every account you have, and that these designations are updated when certain major life events arise.
Action required in three common situations
If you already provided beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, bank accounts or life insurance, it is critical that you review them and update them upon the following events:
- Divorce: There are plenty of cases when someone who failed to update their beneficiary designation passes away and their ex-spouse ends up receiving the account. This is usually contrary to the account owner’s wishes, but if you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your heirs could be in this predicament. (Talk about not leaving gracefully!) This situation is now going to be ugly for your ex, your new spouse (if you had one), and your children.
- New child: If you have a new child who was not previously identified as a beneficiary, you should update your designations to add this new child.
- New estate plan: If you establish an estate plan (will, or ideally, revocable living trust), you should ensure that your wishes in your beneficiary designations for your retirement accounts and bank accounts match-up with the terms of your trust.
When to list your trust versus your spouse/children directly
Even if you have a revocable living trust, you may want to list your spouse as your primary beneficiary. As a rule of thumb, most estate planning attorneys recommend that, for IRA or 401(k) accounts, you list your spouse as your primary beneficiary and your trust as your secondary beneficiary. The reason is that your spouse can receive your retirement account upon your passing and can do what is called a spousal rollover. This rule only applies to spouses. For example, under a spousal rollover, the retirement account of the deceased person can be transferred/rolled over into an IRA surviving spouse. This is an advantageous way for a spouse to receive a retirement account as the account is treated simply as an account of the surviving spouse, and is not subject to RMD or other quirky rules associated with inherited retirement accounts (aka “inherited IRAs” or “beneficiary IRAs”). Rather, the funds are just treated as a Traditional IRA or Roth IRA of the surviving spouse.
Your Trust can be listed second, and, in the case where your primary beneficiary is not living, certain provisions in your trust designated to protect the funds from creditors or misappropriation from inheriting children or other heirs would apply. Your children, or other heirs under your trust who are listed as secondary beneficiaries on your form would receive the funds from your retirement account in an inherited IRA (aka “beneficiary IRA”) and would have RMD requirements to remove funds from their account over their life expectancy. This is sometimes called a “stretch IRA” and is a great tax strategy as it allows them to extend the tax-free (Roth) or tax-deferred (Traditional) benefits of the account over their own lifetime.
Remember, the beneficiary designation is critical and must be completed properly. Take the extra time to get it done right, and check up on the designations on any of your existing accounts that you may be unsure of. It’s better to get these things squared away and in order now than to presume that you completed them right when you set-up the account long ago.
Many investors and financial professionals are familiar with the primary benefits of a Roth IRA: that the plans investments grow tax-free and come out tax-free. But if tax-free investing isn’t enough to get you excited, rest assured, there are more benefits to the Roth IRA. I’ll note just three more in this article.
Remember, Roth IRAs are for nearly everyone with earned income. They’re not restricted to high income earners. Check out my prior article here if you’re unfamiliar with the back-door Roth IRA. Okay, now lets over the other perks of Roth IRAs.
No Required Minimum Distributions
First, Roth IRAs are not subject to RMD. Traditional retirement plan owners are subject to rules known as Required Minimum Distribution rules which require the account owner to start taking distributions and paying tax on the distributions (since traditional plan) when the account owner reaches the age of 70 ½. Not being subject to RMD rules allows the Roth IRA to keep accumulating tax free income (free of capital gain or other taxes on its investment returns) and allows the account to continue to accumulate tax free income during the account owner’s life time. Learn more about the facts and fiction about IRA RMDs here.
Spousal Rollover: The Best Asset to Leave to Your Spouse
Second, a surviving spouse who is the beneficiary of a Roth IRA can continue contributing to that Roth IRA or can combine that Roth IRA into their own Roth IRA. Allowing the spouse beneficiary to take over the account allows additional tax free growth on investments in the Roth IRA account. Non spouse beneficiaries (e.g. children of Roth IRA owner) cannot make additional contributions to the inherited Roth IRA and cannot combine it with their own Roth IRA account. The non-spouse beneficiary becomes subject to required minimum distribution rules but can delay out required distributions up to 5 years from the year of the Roth IRA account owner’s death and is able to continue to keep the tax free return treatment of the retirement account for 5 years after the death of the owner. The second option for non-spouse beneficiaries is to take withdrawals of the account over the life time expectancy of the beneficiary (the younger the beneficiary the longer they can delay taking money out of the Roth IRA). The lifetime expectancy option is usually the best option for a non-spouse beneficiary to keep as much money in the Roth IRA for tax free returns and growth.
Tax and Penalty Free Withdrawals Before Age 59 ½ On What You Put In
Third, Roth IRA owners are not subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty for distributions they take before age 59 ½ on amounts that are comprised of contributions or conversions. Growth and earning are subject to the early withdrawal penalty and taxes too, but you can always take out the amounts you contributed to your Roth IRA or the amounts that you converted without paying taxes or penalties (note that conversions have a 5 year wait period before you can take out funds penalty and tax free). This makes the Roth IRA the most powerful savings account out there because you can take out what you put in without penalty or tax for whatever reason you may have as hardship is not required. Traditional IRAs have no such benefits.
Roth IRAs are a great tool for many investors. Keep in mind that there are qualification rules to being eligible for a Roth IRA that leave out many high income individuals. However, you can convert your traditional retirement plan dollars to a Roth IRA (sometimes known as a backdoor Roth IRA) as the conversion rules do not have an income qualification level requirement on converted amounts to Roth IRAs. This conversion option has in essence made Roth IRAs available to everyone regardless of income.
If you are establishing an estate plan, it is likely that you will have a Revocable Living Trust (“Trust”) as the primary document that outlines who will receive your assets upon your death and what conditions, if any, will be placed on those assets. As many persons are aware, a Trust has numerous advantages over a will because upon the death of the owner(s) of the Trust, the surviving trustee of the Trust will have control and authority to distribute the estate of the deceased person without having to go to probate court. A will, by contrast, typically must receive Court approval and distribution of the assets occurs only after going through probate court and getting orders from the Court. The probate process of a will is expensive, time consuming, and is part of the public record.
When establishing a revocable trust you will be outlining your assets and who will receive those assets upon your death. You will also outline certain conditions that may be placed on your assets. For example, you may state that your children will receive an equal share of your estate upon your death and the death of your spouse but your children shall not receive a distribution if they have a drug or alcohol addiction or if they have a creditor who would cease the funds. The trust may also restrict distributions to minor children so that they don’t receive a large inheritance when they are 18.
One of the most significant decisions you will make when you establish your Trust is who will be the Trustee of your Trust upon your death. In most situations, you will be the trustee during your lifetime and if you have a spouse your spouse will be trustee if they survive you. However, you will need to select a successor Trustee of your Trust who will manage your estate following your death (and the death of your spouse, as applicable). This successor Trustee may be a family member, friend, bank or trust company, or an attorney or other professional. When determining who should be your Trustee, you should consider the following issues and factors.
- What Will the Trustee Do? The Trustee will need to undertake the following tasks.
- Typically will make funeral and burial arrangements along with family members (generally the Trust pays for these things).
- Inform family members and heirs of the estate plans of the deceased.
- Will pay off creditors and hire professional as needed to assist with the estate (accountants, attorneys, real estate agents, etc.).
- Determine assets. They will need to know the assets of the deceased in order to ensure that they are distributed to the heirs/beneficiaries of the Trust.
- Organize assets for distribution. This may include listing and selling real property. It will likely include coordinating the distribution of bank accounts and insurance policies. It will also include organizing and distributing personal effects (e.g. jewelry, furniture, art, personal effects). And finally, it may include the winding down, sell, or transfer of businesses.
- Size of the Estate. Most Trusts will list a family member as the Trustee of the estate and for estates of a couple million dollars or less this is generally a good fit. However, for estates over $3M you may want to consider listing a professional (attorney or law firm) as the successor trustee of your estate and for estates over $10M you may want to consider listing a trust company or bank as the trustee of your estate. Large estates can overwhelm a family member who has never handled such matters before and having a professional with experience can go a long way. The Trust will need to pay for these services (generally in the tens of thousands of dollars) so it isn’t typically advisable for smaller estates unless there is no other adequate family member of friend available.
- When to List Non-Family? If you have heirs/beneficiaries who are likely to disagree and cause contention, you may want to list a non-family member or a friend as the Trustee so that a third party can make decisions and so that you can avoid potential contention and litigation over your estate.
- Financial Expertise of the Trustee. If you are selecting a family member, choose one who has shown good financial skills over their life. If you’re selecting a child over another, consider their financial expertise, work background, location, and family dynamics in selecting one child as Trustee over another. Also, choose someone who is well organized and who is task oriented. The Trustee will have many things to accomplish and you want someone who will take care and responsibility for these things.
- Family Dynamics. All families are different and all situations are unique. As a result, you may select a brother or sister as your successor Trustee instead of choosing a child or other family member. This may be because your children are younger or because a sibling is better equipped to handle the administration of your estate.
- Trustee Compensation. If you are listing a family member as Trustee, they typically will serve without compensation but will be reimbursed for any expenses they incur while serving as Trustee. You may compensate them or give them something extra from the estate for taking on the responsibility but generally family members are listed to serve without compensation.
- Can an Heir/Beneficiary be a Trustee? Yes, you may have a beneficiary/heir serve as Trustee and this is very common. In fact, most persons who have adult children will list a child as the successor Trustee and this person will also typically be a beneficiary/heir. While there is some conflict of interest in this arrangement, the Trustee is bound to the terms of the Trust and can’t abuse that discretion for their own personal benefit.
- Should I Appoint Co-Trustees? Some persons will consider listing co-beneficiaries as successor Trustees. Typically, this is done as a way to involve more than one family member in the distribution of the estate so that one person doesn’t feel left out. While there can be some benefits to involving another person as Trustee (e.g. sharing the workload, combining skills of persons listed) it can cause contention and confusion as to who is doing what so be specific about their authority and responsibility if you are listing multiple trustee.
- Who is Most Commonly Listed as Trustee? Most persons with adult children will list one of their children as successor Trustee. Most persons with younger children will list a sibling or close friend as their successor Trustee.
Your Trustee has an important and critical task in managing your estate following your death. Choose wisely as they will need to make critical decisions that will effect your loved ones.