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.
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