Q&A: What happens to your HSA money when you die?

Dear Liz: What designation or instructions should I make for assets (if any) which remain in my health savings account at the time of my death? Do any remaining funds go directly to my estate or am I allowed to name a beneficiary for this money? If “yes” to the beneficiary question, is the beneficiary subject to the same 10-year payout requirement that applies to most other retirement account beneficiaries? I assume that if the funds go to my estate, the estate would pay tax on the funds given I’ve never paid tax on that money.

Answer: Yes, you can name beneficiaries for health savings accounts. But the tax advantages of these plans often disappear at death.

HSAs, which are paired with high deductible health insurance plans, are known for their rare triple tax benefit. Contributions are tax-deductible and balances can grow tax-deferred, while withdrawals for qualifying medical expenses can be tax free. HSAs don’t have the “use it or lose it” clause that applies to flexible spending accounts; balances can be rolled over from year to year and invested for growth.

What’s more, the withdrawals needn’t happen in the same year you incur the medical costs. As long as you keep good records of unreimbursed medical expenses, you can use them to justify tax-free withdrawals years or even decades in the future.

As a result, many people who can afford to pay medical expenses with other funds use their HSAs as a kind of supplemental retirement fund. There are no required minimum withdrawals, and it can be tempting to leave balances in an HSA as long as possible.

If you’re married and name your spouse as your beneficiary, that may not be a problem. Spouses who inherit HSAs can opt to treat the account as their own, which means they can make tax-free withdrawals to pay for qualified medical expenses.

Other beneficiaries, though, will be required to empty the accounts and pay income tax on the withdrawals. These withdrawals won’t be penalized, but they also can’t be delayed. By contrast, non-spouse beneficiaries typically have 10 years to empty most inherited retirement plan accounts.

If you don’t name a beneficiary, any remaining funds in the account will be paid to your estate and taxed on your final income tax return.

Q&A: What’s a qualified charitable distribution?

Dear Liz: I have a suggestion for the couple who is facing the start of required minimum distributions from their retirement accounts but who do not need the money. They could consider making a qualified charitable distribution (QCD). A QCD allows you to donate to a charity directly from your IRA and satisfies your RMD requirement. The only caveat is that the money cannot pass through your hands. It must go directly from the IRA to the charity. You can’t take a deduction for the contribution, but the money won’t count as taxable income. Although the age of RMD has been rising in recent years, the age for a QCD remains at 70½. The maximum allowable is $100,000 per taxpayer a year. A husband and wife can each make a QCD if they have separate IRAs.

Answer: Qualified charitable distributions can be a great solution for people who have saved more in their retirement accounts than they need and who want to benefit good causes. The charity must be a 501(c)(3) organization that can receive tax-deductible contributions, and, as you note, the money needs to be transferred directly from the retirement account and the contribution made before the year’s RMD deadline, which is typically Dec. 31. There are a few other rules involved, so consider consulting a tax pro before arranging a QCD.

Q&A: Trusts and taxes

Dear Liz: My parents set up a family trust, which my brother and I have now inherited but not fully distributed. Included in that trust was the understanding that $130,000 would go to my daughter who is now 23. She has not received any of the money yet but would like to receive it within the next year for a down payment on a house. Would it be better to give her half the money this calendar year and half next year, or give her everything at once? I’m thinking there may be tax breaks for first-time home buyers that would offset the tax burden that a sudden increase in income from the inheritance would cause. She has been living on her own for several years and has a full-time job earning about $52,000 per year. She is already taking advantage of her company’s 401(k) match.

Answer: The inheritance won’t be considered income and isn’t taxable as such. Of course, any money the inheritance earns would be taxable. So if your daughter parks the money in a high-yield savings account while she looks for a home, she would pay income tax on any interest earned.

There also isn’t currently a first-time home buyer federal tax credit, although many states have various programs to help people buy homes. These typically do have income limits, although, again, the inheritance itself wouldn’t be considered part of her income.

Before you distribute the money, however, get clear on what exactly the “understanding” is about this money. If the trust clearly states this amount goes to your daughter, that’s one thing. If this money has been allocated to you, however, and you’re complying with your parents’ unwritten wish, you may have to file a gift tax return when the money is distributed. (Gift taxes won’t be due unless you give away millions in your lifetime.) An estate planning attorney can advise you.

Q&A: Home sales and taxes

Dear Liz: My in-laws passed away earlier this year within months of each other. Their primary asset, part of their living trust, is their home, worth close to $1 million. There is a reverse mortgage of about $332,000 that will be paid off once the house sells. Will capital gains tax apply to the four beneficiaries? Or do we get to take advantage of the step up in cost basis? The house is in escrow right now. I don’t think the house has gone up in value since the last death.

Answer: The home will get the favorable step up in tax basis. That means the beneficiaries won’t have to pay capital gains tax on all the appreciation that happened during the parents’ lifetime.

Q&A: Retirement benefits and taxes

Dear Liz: We are just getting to the age where mandatory distributions from our retirement accounts have to start. We don’t need the additional cash as we have great pensions. If we convert to Roth IRAs, will the amount in the Roth be subject to minimum deductions going forward? Will our heir have to pay any taxes on the money in the Roth account when inherited? Can we count the amount converted to the Roth account against the mandatory required distribution? I do understand that all the money will be taxed as income when coming out of the retirement accounts.

Answer: Required minimum distributions and Roth conversions have to be separate transactions. Conversions can’t count against your RMDs, and you’re not allowed to put an RMD into a Roth.

Any money you convert to a Roth would, however, reduce future RMDs, since Roths aren’t subject to mandatory distributions. Your heirs wouldn’t pay taxes on inherited Roth accounts, either, although they would be required to drain those accounts within 10 years.

Plus, you’re increasing your pool of tax-free money. This could be especially helpful for whichever of you survives the other, because after the year of death, the survivor probably won’t be able to file as “married filing jointly” anymore and would be subject to less favorable single taxpayer status.

Consult a tax pro, however. Roth conversions can push you into a higher tax bracket and increase your Medicare premiums. A “laddered” approach, or a series of partial Roth conversions over several years, may be advisable.

Q&A: Paying a grandchild’s student loans

Dear Liz: Regarding the grandparent who would like to pay off a grandchild’s student loans.

You wrote that paying off the loans would be considered a gift. However, if the grandparent paid the funds to the institution that originated the student loan, would it then not be a gift? This would exempt the grandparent from filing the gift tax return.

Answer: You may be thinking of the unlimited exception for a family member’s medical expenses or education. Unfortunately, payments made to a student lender aren’t included in this exception.

Normally, any gift that’s larger than the annual gift exclusion limit — which is currently $17,000 per recipient — would require filing a gift tax return. Gift taxes aren’t due, however, until the amount given away over the annual limits exceeds the lifetime gift and estate exemption limit (which is currently $12.92 million). Clearly, someone has to be quite wealthy, and quite generous, before gift taxes are a concern.

But even the necessity to file a gift tax return can be avoided for larger gifts if you’re paying someone else’s education or medical expenses. The unlimited exception for these expenses, however, applies only to tuition payments made directly to the educational institution and payments for medical care made directly to a healthcare provider. Payments to other parties, such as lenders or insurance companies, aren’t included in this exception.

Q&A: How to tap an unused 529 college savings plan without getting taxed

Dear Liz: I opened a 529 college savings plan for our son and over the years it grew. My son was fortunate to receive a full-ride academic scholarship and therefore much of the money stayed in the plan. Recently my son became a new father to my first grandchild. I know that it is permissible to give five years’ worth of tax-free giving in setting up a new 529 plan for a child. My question is: Can I transfer five years of annual gift-tax-free giving ($85,000) to my grandchild from the account originally set up for my son without incurring a gift tax obligation?

Answer: You’re worrying about the wrong taxes.

Few people need to be concerned about gift taxes, since someone would have to give away more than the current gift and estate tax lifetime limit for any gift to be taxable. That limit is currently $12.92 million.

The annual gift tax exclusion limit is the amount you can give away without having to file a gift tax return. The 2023 limit is $17,000 per recipient, and 529 college savings plans allow you to give up to five years’ worth of annual exclusions at one time, or $85,000. (If you are married, you and your spouse can give up to $170,000.)

A 529 college savings plan can have only one beneficiary at a time, however. With few exceptions — and we’ll get to one of those in a moment — withdrawals are tax free only if used to pay qualified education expenses for the plan’s beneficiary. So the transfer you’re proposing would incur income taxes and penalties.

You can, however, change the beneficiary of the 529 plan to your grandchild. As long as the new beneficiary is a family member of the current beneficiary, there will be no tax consequences, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. The IRS’ definition of family includes the beneficiary’s spouse, children or other descendants, parents or other ancestors, siblings and in-laws, along with aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and first cousins and their spouses.

You may want to wait a few years, however. Starting in 2024, you’ll have the option to roll up to $35,000 from a 529 to a Roth IRA for your son, subject to annual contribution limits, Luscombe said. If next year’s IRA contribution limit is $7,000, for example, that would be the maximum you could roll into the Roth for the year. Your son also would have to have earned income equal to the amount rolled over.

Taking advantage of this option could be a great way to help your son build tax-free income for retirement before you switch the beneficiary designation to benefit your grandchild.

Q&A: Tax consequences of annuity conversion

Dear Liz: Several years ago my wife inherited an IRA when her mother died. Her banker suggested rolling the IRA into an annuity with an insurance company. That company is difficult to deal with and not forthcoming about how the annuity is invested. She wants to convert the IRA into a certificate of deposit so it is insured by the FDIC. What are the tax consequences of doing that?

Answer: There are many different types of annuities. If your wife purchased an immediate annuity, which offers a stream of payments in return for a lump sum, then she probably can’t change her mind since those transactions are effectively irreversible.

If she purchased a deferred annuity, though, she has more options. Deferred annuities allow people to defer the stream of payments until later — often years or even decades in the future. In the meantime, the annuity may pay a fixed rate, a variable rate based on the performance of underlying investments, or an indexed rate based on a market benchmark.

Your wife won’t face taxes if she switches from a deferred annuity to a CD, since changing investments within an IRA isn’t considered a taxable event. The annuity itself may have surrender charges, however. Because annuities often pay advisors substantial commissions, surrender charges help discourage investors from withdrawing the money before insurers can recoup those fees.

These charges and high expenses in general make deferred annuities a poor fit for many investors, and many financial planners especially dislike seeing them in IRAs. A deferred annuity’s primary advantage is tax deferral, which an IRA already offers.

If your wife feels she was misled about this investment, she can make a complaint with her state insurance regulator.

Q&A: Inherited IRAs and taxes

Dear Liz: After reading your recent response on the taxability of inherited IRAs, I have a question. I am 53, divorced with no children, and have an IRA worth more than $1 million. I’ve always listed the beneficiary of the account as my estate, for no reason other than administrative ease (if I ever change my will, the IRA will follow along). However, from a tax perspective, is this unwise? In your recent response you state that non-spouse beneficiaries typically have up to 10 years to drain an inherited IRA. If these individuals don’t directly inherit the IRA, and instead it must first filter through my estate, do the payouts occur immediately and therefore create a greater tax burden that cannot be spread out for as many years?

Answer: If you die before starting to take required minimum distributions and the estate is your beneficiary, the IRA assets must be completely distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of your death, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting. Designating individuals as IRA beneficiaries rather than the estate would allow them to spread the distributions over 10 years rather than five years. If you die after starting required minimum distributions, the remaining distributions would be made according to the single life expectancy tables for someone your age, Luscombe said.

The account also could be more vulnerable to creditors, depending on state law, and could be subject to the delays and costs of probate. In other words, choosing “ease” now can create a lot of discomfort later for your heirs.

“IRAs are very difficult in probate situations, and it’s better to name individuals to be beneficiaries directly on those accounts in almost all situations,” said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

Q&A: IRAs, pensions and taxes

Dear Liz: I contributed to an IRA during my working years. I’m now retired. Both my and my spouse’s IRAs are Roths, so we have no required minimum distributions. I’d like to continue contributing to an IRA, but neither I nor my spouse have W-2 or self-employment income anymore. We do, however, both collect pensions, which are taxed as ordinary income. Shouldn’t we be able to make IRA contributions, as we earned these pensions by working, and they are taxed exactly the same as our paychecks were taxed?

Answer: Nice try! There’s no longer an age limit for contributing to an IRA or a Roth IRA, but the IRS insists that those who contribute have earned income — which means wages, salary, tips, bonuses, commissions or net self-employment income. Payments from pensions and retirement funds don’t count as earned income.