2018 FSA Contribution Cap Rises to $2,650

Tax-exclusion limits for commuting and adoption benefits also edge up

By Stephen Miller, CEBS Oct 23, 2017
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Employees can put an extra $50 into their health care flexible spending accounts (heath FSAs) next year.

For 2018, employees can contribute $2,650 to their health FSAs, up from the 2017 limit of $2,600. The increase also applies to limited-purpose FSAs that are restricted to dental and vision services.

Just in time for open enrollment season, the IRS made the change in Revenue Procedure 2017-58, issued Oct. 19.

Other inflation-adjusted benefits caps will also increase, if only slightly, such as for qualified transportation benefits and adoption assistance programs.

The increase in the cost-of-living index—up 2.2 percent for the 12 months ending in September, was enough to meet the statutory thresholds that trigger rate adjustments for these benefits.

Health FSAs

Employers should communicate the higher cap to employees during open enrollment and include the new limit in their open-enrollment materials—even if they must, at this late date, do so through a printed or online addendum.

Health Flexible Spending Arrangements
(includes limited-purpose FSAs)
2018 2017
Maximum salary reduction amount$2,650$2,600

"Once again, the IRS delivers their FSA maximum limit changes too late for many employers to adjust their printed communications," said Brian Uhlig, Chicago-based senior vice president for benefits consulting at GCG Financial, part of Alera Group, a network of insurance and financial services firms."

Employee and Employer Funding
Health FSAs can be funded on a pretax basis by employees, employers or both. The new $2,650 limit applies to employee pretax salary reduction contributions to either a full-purpose or a limited-purpose health FSA.

"Employer contributions generally do not count toward the limit," noted Janet Stebbins, a benefit analyst with Marsh Consultin Group in Paso Robles, Calif. "However, if the employer contribution is a result of the employee’s use of cafeteria plan flex credits which he/she may have otherwise elected to receive in cash or as a taxable benefit, then the contribution would count towards the $2,650 limit."

While FSA contribution caps for employees "are routine and well understood by employers and employees alike, many employers may not be aware of regulations regarding employer contributions to their employees' FSAs," said Harrison Stone, general counsel and compliance officer at ConnectYourCare, a benefits administration firm based in Baltimore.

He noted, for instance, that to remain an "excepted benefit" not subject to Affordable Care Act requirements that apply to group health plans, employer contributions to the health FSA may not be more than double the employee's salary reduction contribution or, if the employee's contribution is less than $500, then not more than $500.

For example, "an employee who contributes $1,000 could receive only up to a $1,000 match from his or her employer, while an employee who contributes $350 could receive up to $500 from his or her employer," Stone explained.

"Technically, there is no set maximum for employer contributions to an FSA," added Jeremy Miller, CEO and founder of FSAstore.com, an e-commerce site. However, "employers will typically limit their contributions to no more than $500 or to a match of the employee contribution, up to the 2018 limit of $2,650. This makes it easier for the FSA to meet certain Affordable Care Act requirements and easier for employers to administer," he observed.

FSA-Eligible Expenses

Funds in an FSA can pay for medical services under the health plan's deductible and can be used for health insurance co-payments. "Some over-the-counter (OTC) medications can be purchased with FSA dollars but require a doctor's prescription to do so, while other OTC items do not," said Ijeoma Iruke, consumer education specialist at FSAstore.com.

Unspent Funds
Since 2013, there have been two options for handling unused funds in a health FSA at year-end that employers can adopt:

  • If a health FSA plan has a carryover feature, participants can roll over up to $500 of unused FSA dollars to the next year but will forfeit any excess over $500 at year-end. Any allowable amount that rolls over into the new plan year will not affect the maximum election that employees can make.
  • An optional grace period can give employees an additional two-and-a-half months—through March 15—to incur new expenses using prior-year FSA funds. At the end of the grace period, all unspent funds must be forfeited to the employer.

"Health FSAs cannot have both a carryover and a grace period option, and employers are not obligated to offer either extension," Miller said  A plan must be amended to implement either feature, he noted.

Differences with HSAs

During open enrollment, employees are often confused about the differences between health FSAs and health savings accounts (HSAs), which have higher annual contribution limits and allow unused funds to remain and grow within the account from year to year, among other distinctions. When both FSAs and HSAs are benefit options, open-enrollment communications should clearly state how the two differ, using a side-by-side list of account features, for instance.

An individual who is covered by a general-purpose health FSA is not eligible to contribute to an HSA. This holds true even if the individual is covered by a health FSA sponsored by a spouse's employer. However, an individual may contribute to both an HSA and a limited-purpose FSA that's restricted to dental and vision-care expenses.

Limited-purpose FSAs

Limited-purpose FSA funds can only be used to pay for qualifying dental and vision expenses incurred by employees or their covered spouses and qualified tax dependents. The contribution caps for a limited-purpose FSA are the same as for a health FSA. If employees are eligible for a health FSA, there's no reason for them to have a limited-purpose FSA, since the health FSA covers the services of a limited-purpose FSA (dental and vision). 

Modifying Plan Documents

Consider writing your plan documents to define the contribution limit as the annual amount allowed by the IRS for the plan year, so that annual amendments are not necessary to permit contributions up to the adjusted pretax limit, Uhlig advised.

Otherwise, he noted, FSA plan sponsors can "simply make the adjustment next year."

"Employers are not required to adopt the new limit," noted Stebbins. "If they do, they may need to update their Section 125 cafeteria plan document and inform their third-party administrator if FSA administration is outsourced."

Open Enrollment Tips
For those able to modify their open enrollment communications, "this is a great opportunity for employers to encourage employees to not only sign up for an FSA account but take advantage of the increase in the annual limit," said Iruke. 

She recommended that open enrollment materials give examples on how saving with an FSA can reduce out-of-pocket costs, such as: "If your annual salary next year is $60,000 and you elect to max out your FSA at $2,650, you will only be taxed on $57,350 instead of the full $60,000, while the $2,650 in your FSA is available to use to purchase qualifying items and services tax-free."

Younger employees are likely to say, "I don't get sick and I don't think I'll need this," Iruke added. When participants access an FSA calculator and enter their estimated co-pays, deductibles, prescriptions and other items that might not realize are eligible—such as prescription sunglasses—"they are able to get a better idea of how FSAs can work for them," she pointed out.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Designing and Managing Flexible Benefits (Cafeteria) Plans}

Dependent Care FSAs

The dependent care FSA maximum is set by statute and is not subject to inflation-related adjustments. These limits have not been raised in several years.

A dependent care FSA is a pretax benefit account used to pay for dependent care services such as day care, preschool, summer camps and nonemployer-sponsored before or after school programs. Funds may be used for expenses relating to children under the age of 13 or incapable of self-care who live with the account holder more than half the year. 

Dependent care FSAs also can be used for a spouse or other qualifying dependent who is physically or mentally incapable of self-care and lives with the account holder for more than half the year. They may be used for elder daycare when an elderly or disabled parent is considered a dependent and the account holder is covering more than 50 percent of the elderly or disabled parent's maintenance costs.

The annual contribution limit for a dependent Care FSA is based on the account holder's tax filing status. Generally, joint filers have double the limit of single or separate filers. However, even if each spouse has access to a separate FSA through his or her employer, they are still subject to the mandated maximum limits.

Dependent Care FSA Pretax Contribution Limits 2018 2017  
Account holder is married and files a separate tax return
$2,500
$2,500
 
Account holder is married and files a joint tax return or files as single/head of household
$5,000
$5,000
 

In addition, maximum contributions to a dependent FSA may not exceed these earned income limits:

  • For single account holders, the earned income limit is their salary excluding contributions to their dependent care FSA.

  • For married account holders, the earned income limit is the lesser of their salary excluding contributions to their dependent care FSA or their spouse's salary.

Note: On Nov. 2, House Republicans unveiled their long-awaited tax bill, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, which would eliminate the tax exclusion for dependent care FSA contributions. However, it is unclear if broad-based tax reform will be passed. Also, the tax bill could be substantially altered before it comes uip for a vote. Efforts in Washington, however, bear watching.



Qualified Transportation Benefits

The monthly dollar limits for tax-excludable transit and parking benefits will inch up by $5 beginning in 2018.

Qualified Transportation Benefit Exclusion 2018 2017
Transit passes and van pooling
$260$255
Qualified parking
$260$255

"A lot of employees are asking, 'How do I make this commute into my office either less expensive or more efficient and convenient?'" said Dan Neuburger, president of WageWorks commuter services in San Mateo, Calif. Adding to this pressure is the growing number of cities and localities—including New York City, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco—that are mandating that most employers offer these benefits on a tax-free basis, he said.

Adoption Assistance Programs

For employer-provided adoption assistance, the maximum amount excludable from an employee's income in 2018 vs. 2017 for the adoption of a child—both for regular and special-needs adoptions—is shown below. Excludable reimbursements are limited to "necessary and reasonable" expenses related to adopting a child.

For those with higher incomes, the adoption tax credit phases out. For 2018, those with adjusted gross incomes above $247,580 cannot claim the credit, while those with incomes from $207,580 to $247,580 can claim a portion of the credit.

Adoption Benefits 2018 2017
Excludible amount$13,840$13,570
Phase-out income thresholds:

Phase-out begins$207,580$203,540
Phase-out complete$247,580$243,540

"Adoption benefits typically include some combination of financial assistance, information and referral services, and paid or unpaid leave," according to the Society for Human Resource Management's toolkit, Managing Adoption Assistance Benefits. "Adopting a child from foster care may cost about $2,500, domestic private adoptions can cost up to $40,000, and international adoptions can cost up to $30,000," the toolkit states. "Costs may include public or private agency fees, court costs, legal fees and counseling fees."

Other Tax-Exclusion Limits

In addition to the employee benefit tax-exclusion limits noted above, federal agencies have also announced:

Beyond IRS Limits

While the tax-free elements of a benefit program are important to most employees, they are only one part of a comprehensive benefits strategy. "Listen to your employees and find out what their needs are," said Julie Bond, program director for Best Workplaces for Commuters.

Employers should survey their workforce to see what benefits employees want and utilize. "It must be of value to employees because you don't want to set up a program that no one will use," she said.

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