Health FSA & HSA in the same year?

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Q: We just hired a new employee on 7/1 who told us he elected the maximum amount under his previous employer’s health FSA that started in January. We offer a HDHP with an HSA. Is he eligible to participate in an HSA? Or does he need to wait until next year? 

A:  If his health FSA terminated (i.e. he did not elect COBRA), he is eligible to participate in an HSA as of the first of the month after his FSA termination, assuming he’s otherwise eligible for the HSA.

There are 4 basic rules to Qualify for an HSA:

  • Covered under a high deductible health plan (HDHP), on the first day of the month.
  • Have no other health coverage except what is permitted under the regulations
  • Not enrolled in Medicare.
  • Cannot be claimed as a dependent on someone else’s tax return.

So if he meets these 4 requirements, he is eligible to open an HSA on the first of the month following the health FSA termination.

When an employee leaves a job during the course of the year, they are still entitled to the earmarked FSA amount for that year (assuming the eligible expenses incurred prior to termination and claims submitted timely), even if they spend more than has been taken out of their paycheck so far. Furthermore, they could contribute to a new employer’s FSA (or HSA) and have additional pre-tax dollars to spend. (The “FSA loophole” doesn’t work for HSAs because the HSAs are portable and the employee’s account even if they leave.) Likewise, an employee may work for two or more entirely different (i.e. unrelated) entities and contribute the maximum amount to both employer’s FSAs at the same time. The health FSA limit is per employee per employer’s health FSA plan.

So if the health FSA and the HSA don’t overlap, (i.e. the health FSA terminated when the employee left the previous employer) he can contribute to an HSA for the remaining months assuming he’s otherwise eligible (mentioned above). The amount he is eligible to contribute, is calculated in two ways (see Limit On Contributions):

  1. “general monthly contribution rule” – which is one-twelfth of the applicable maximum contribution limit for the year for each month of they year they are HSA eligible. (There are tax implications for “over contributing” when not eligible.)
  2. “last month rule” – which basically states an individual is treated as HSA-eligible for the entire calendar year for purposes of HSA contributions, if they are eligible on the first day of the last month of their tax year (which is Dec. 1 for most). However, to rely on this special rule, the individual must then remain eligible for the HSA through the next 12 months after the last month of their tax year. (i.e. 13 months total).

If he did elect COBRA, assuming no carry-over provision (not common for COBRA participants to be eligible for) or grace period (this is something many COBRA participants are eligible for), or if there is a grace period (or carryover) & he has a zero balance on the last day of the FSA plan year, then he would be eligible for an HSA as of the first day of the month after the health FSA plan year ends (assuming he’s otherwise eligible for the HSA).

Not All Cafeteria Plans Are The Same

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cafeteria plan is a mechanism that offers employees a choice between cash (i.e. their full salary as taxable income) or non-taxable qualified benefits (i.e. allows employees to pay with pre-tax dollars.)  All cafeteria plans are salary reduction plans based on Internal Revenue Code §125, however, there are many plan design variations and not all cafeteria plans are the same.

A Premium Only Plan (POP, also sometimes called a Premium Conversion Plan, PCP) is the simplest form of a cafeteria plan under IRS Code §125. It’s a “premium payment plan” and allows for employers to take certain employee paid premiums for insurance benefits pretax. (e.g. group health, dental, vision)

When you have a health and/or dependent care flexible spending account (FSA), that goes beyond the premium payment plan format because you are permitting employees to reduce their salaries before taxes to reimburse medical/childcare expenses.

In addition to the “rules” under IRS Code §125 found in a POP plan, FSAs are subject to special requirements contained in other IRS regulations.

Health FSAs are subject to requirements under Code §105 (self-insured medical reimbursement plans) Code §106 (the requirements for accident and health plans) and Code §125.

Dependent Care FSAs are subject to requirements under Code §129 (“Dependent care assistance programs”) and various special FSA requirements in Code §125 and IRS regulations. 

Therefore you need a more complex cafeteria plan document (often called a flexible spending plan) than a POP document to be in compliance when offering an FSA.  

The most complex form of a cafeteria plan, sometimes referred to as a “full flex” plan is where an employer provides employees “flex credits” to “spend” on qualified benefits. Depending on the plan design, the employee may be eligible to receive in cash, taxable compensation if the employee doesn’t “spend” all of his flex credits on benefits.

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One requirement that every cafeteria plan must meet, is having a written plan document that includes all content specified in the IRS code. e.g. participation rules, election and election change procedures, manner of contributions, etc. 

While it is permissible to have separate cafeteria plan documents. i.e. a POP plan document for the insurance premiums and a separate cafeteria plan document for an FSA, for ease of administration most will include a POP component with in their flexible spending plan document.

According to the 2007 proposed cafeteria plan regulations (Treas. Reg. §1.125-1(c)(6))

(6) Failure to satisfy written plan requirements. If there is no written cafeteria plan, or if the written plan fails to satisfy any of the requirements in this paragraph (c) (including cross-referenced requirements), the plan is not a cafeteria plan and an employee’s election between taxable and nontaxable benefits results in gross income to the employee.

In simple terms, failure to have a written plan document employees would be treated as if they had a taxable benefit (e.g wages) even though they received a nontaxable benefit (e.g. health insurance).

The cafeteria plan document is what allows pretax salary reductions and contains the rules the IRS permits. It’s an important document to have and to understand.