New Rules and Ways to Use HSAs/FSAs

People who own a high-deductible health insurance plan may have the ability to open a health savings account (HSA). They can contribute pre-tax income to an HSA and invest the money for tax-free growth in a variety of mutual funds, stocks and exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

The funds may be withdrawn tax-free when used to pay for qualified expenses, such as the plan’s high deductible, copayments and coinsurance. The funds also can be used to purchase a wide range of health-related products.

However, a recent poll found that 40 percent of respondents who have access to a health savings account do not fully understand them. Perhaps that is why legislation passed last year that increased eligible uses of HSA funds largely went under the radar. The CARES Act included a provision that greatly expanded the number and types of health-related products and services that can be paid for with money from an HSA or an employer-sponsored Flexible Spending Account (FSA). The following list includes many of the newly eligible expenses (some require a Letter of Medical Necessity (LMN) from a licensed provider):

  • Over-the-counter medications, such as for fever, cold and flu, headache, muscle aches, acid, heartburn and indigestion relief, allergy and sinus relief, anti-diarrheal and constipation medicine
  • Toothache relief
  • Skin and rash ointments, medicated body lotions
  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Thermometers
  • Band-Aids and bandages
  • Kinesiology tape
  • Hot and cold therapy packs, cooling headache pads
  • Eye drops
  • Facial cleansers, face wipes
  • Prescription acne medication and over-the-counter acne treatments
  • Sunscreen and SPF moisturizers (including expensive anti-aging facial lotions with SPF protection)
  • Lip balm for sun protection and chapped lips
  • Sleep and snoring aids
  • Smoking cessation nicotine gum, patches, lozenges, inhalers and nasal sprays
  • Prescription sunglasses
  • Humidifiers, air purifiers and filters
  • Dietician fees
  • Some mental health treatments and services
  • Prescription hormone replacement therapy
  • Birth control pills
  • Pregnancy tests
  • Fertility tests
  • Fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization, intrauterine insemination, fertility medication, the temporary storage of eggs or sperm
  • Birth classes and medically certified doulas
  • Breast pumps, breastfeeding classes, absorbent breast pads, breast milk storage bags
  • Baby monitors and potty training undies
  • Feminine care items, such as pads, tampons, cups and sponges
  • DNA/Ancestry kits

In 2021, the contribution limit for a health savings account is $3,600 for individuals and $7,200 for families; anyone age 55 or older can make an additional $1,000 annual contribution.

Just recently, the IRS published guidelines for employers regarding the use of Flexible Spending Account funds. Because of social distance guidelines and shutdowns in 2020, many people continued to work from home and contribute to their FSA but were unable to use those funds, which are generally designed to be used in the year saved (or otherwise lost).

The new guidelines allow employers to carry over or extend the grace period for unused health and/or dependent care FSA funds to the immediately following plan year. This new rule is retroactive for the 2020 and 2021 plan years. Note that while the IRS permits these new extension rules, it’s up to employers to decide what they want to do.

Roth Conversion in 2021?

Roth Conversion in 2021?In 2020, a year when all income brackets benefited from lower tax rates, the stock market took a nosedive at the beginning of the pandemic. For investors sharp enough to see the opportunity, this was an ideal time to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA.

When you conduct a Roth conversion, the assets are taxed at ordinary income tax rates in the year of the conversion. So, the best time to do this is when your current income tax rate is low and when your IRA account balance loses money due to declining market performance. Once you convert the account to a Roth, those assets continue to grow tax free and are no longer subject to taxes when withdrawn later.

If you believe those stocks will rebound, you can direct the traditional and new Roth IRA custodians to move the shares as they are, rather than selling them for cash. Or, if you are converting the entire account and choose to remain with the same brokerage, you can simply instruct the custodian to change the account type. This way you can keep the same investments, pay applicable taxes on the account balance at the time of the conversion, and then never have to pay taxes on future gains.

While the stock market did recover in 2020, many market analysts believe equities are currently overpriced and could experience another correction this year. On top of that, with Democrats now in control of the White House and both houses of Congress, many expect legislation that will increase income taxes, at least among wealthier households.

Therefore, in order to avoid higher taxes on a long-accumulated traditional IRA, 2021 might be a good year to conduct a Roth conversion. The key is to try to time that conversion with a market loss. By conducting a conversion before income taxes increase, you’ll pay a lower rate, and all future earnings can grow tax-free and be distributed tax-free. Bear in mind, too, that a Roth does not mandate required minimum distributions at any age. The full account balance of a Roth has the opportunity to continue growing for the rest of the owner’s life.

A Roth conversion is not the best strategy for everyone. Consider the following scenarios that are not ideal for conversion.

  • An investor under age 59½ will be assessed a penalty on newly converted Roth funds withdrawn in less than five years, so this might not work for an early retiree who needs immediate income.
  • If you expect to be in a lower tax bracket during retirement, you should wait until then to pay taxes on distributions of your traditional IRA. Also, if you think you might relocate to a state with lower or no state income tax during retirement, not converting eliminates state taxes on that money entirely.
  • Watch out for a bump in income taxes on a Roth conversion. You might not want to convert if those assets put you in a higher tax bracket during the year of conversion.
  • Also note that if you convert after age 65, higher income reported that year could increase premiums for Medicare Part B benefits, as well as taxes on Social Security benefits.
  • If the non-spousal IRA beneficiary is likely to remain in a lower tax bracket than the owner, he might as well leave the assets in the traditional IRA. Otherwise, the owner will waste more of his estate’s assets to pay taxes on the conversion.
  • If you don’t have available cash outside the traditional IRA to pay the taxes on the conversion, the money will come out of the account and substantially drop the value. Consider whether or not your investment timeline is long enough to make up for that loss.
  • If your goal is to leave that IRA money to a charity, don’t bother to convert. Qualified charities are exempt from taxes on donations.

If you’re planning to leave a Roth IRA to your heirs, they also enjoy tax-free distributions as long as that Roth was opened and funded for at least five years before you pass away. This is another reason why it might be better to convert to a Roth IRA sooner rather than later.

The Impact of COVID on Life Insurance

If someone you know died from COVID-19 and had an existing life insurance policy, there should be no problem receiving the death benefit. The terms of a life insurance contract cannot be changed after purchase, so anyone with a policy before the pandemic will continue to be covered as long as premiums are paid.

However, the life insurance industry is in a quandary right now when it comes to new applicants applying for policies.

Some insurers have placed an age limit on applicants to whom they will sell policies. Travelers who have recently visited countries with a significant outbreak and people currently infected with the virus are generally asked to wait until after they have quarantined or recovered to apply for life insurance. While the coronavirus has had a high fatality rate among people age 65 and older, the death rate has fluctuated among demographics over the past year as the virus spread from metropolitan areas to more rural parts of the country.

With this in mind, now is probably one of the most challenging times to apply for a life insurance policy. In the past, applicants have had to answer standard questions regarding their medical history. Today, most also will have to disclose if they have been treated for COVID-19. Bear in mind that even people who did not become severely ill could suffer medical conditions in the future resulting from the infection. However, it is best to answer that question honestly, because any future claims could be denied if it is found the applicant lied about his or her COVID experience on the application.

As the data continues to be assessed, it is likely that insurers will adjust their terms and rates in response to the recent pandemic. It is possible, in fact quite probable, that data pointing to enduring effects of COVID-19 will be included in life insurance underwriting standards in the future. This could increase premiums for COVID-19 survivors – or result in denial of coverage altogether.

In the past, there were life insurers that sold low-cost, low-payout policies without a medical exam or extensive health questions. But these days, given how quickly the coronavirus can take a life, applicants age 60 and older would be hard-pressed to qualify for one of those “guaranteed issue” policies.

In fact, pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes and asthma – which are highly susceptible to the ravages of the coronavirus – may undergo more scrutiny in the future. While pre-existing conditions are no longer a qualifying issue for health insurance, they are very much a part of the life insurance underwriting process and do increase individual premiums.

There is one silver lining for life insurance applicants: Some insurers have eliminated the normally required physical exam due to social distancing restrictions. Others have opted to postpone the in-person exam but offer immediate temporary coverage with a limited death benefit. A couple of life insurers in Connecticut and Massachusetts even offer a free, three-year term life policy to frontline workers in appreciation for their work during the pandemic. Eligible applicants include in-hospital personnel and first responders who have the greatest risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

Anyone who has lost their income due to the pandemic and is in danger of not being able to pay life insurance premiums should call their carrier to see if there are options to continue coverage. Some companies have agreed to defer premiums for up to 90 days rather than cancel coverage for people likely to find employment soon. It’s a good idea to call and find out rather than miss payments and hope your insurance company chooses not to notice.

While Many Suffer Financially, Some Manage to Profit off Pandemic

The Federal Reserve recently reported that the 50 richest people in the United States increased their net worth by $339 billion during the first half of 2020. There are two primary contributors to this near-unprecedented level of growth. The first is that many either owned or were heavily invested in tech companies that thrived during the pandemic. Increased technology demands for remote work, online shopping, streaming entertainment, and socially-distanced socializing created a lucrative COVID-19 economy in some sectors.

Another reason is that the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve proactively infused the economy with stimulus capital. That helped mitigate long-term market disruption that might have otherwise occurred.

The short explanation of how to leverage assets for greater wealth during a pandemic is to be well-capitalized and invested in the stock market. To wit, over 88 percent of the equity in corporations and in mutual fund shares is owned by the wealthiest 10 percent of Americans. In other words, they’re not sitting on their cash; it is continually working for them.

In fact, nearly every tragedy has some form of silver lining investment opportunity. For example, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes are good for the construction and contracting industries. The pandemic is interesting because it has large and almost exclusively benefited technology companies – in as much as they serve other industries.

The obvious pandemic winners are streaming services such as Amazon and Netflix, but also consider the proliferation of video conference technologies, online financial services, and telemedicine. All of these innovations existed before COVID-19, but it took a global pandemic for them to become mainstream services. Moreover, it is unlikely that their popularity will wane once the virus is contained. After all, we love convenience, and few things are more convenient than being able to conduct daily activities – such as work and doctor’s appointments – from the comfort of your own home.

But just as the coronavirus boosted fortunes in many market sectors, it depressed others, such as cruise lines, movie theaters, and airline stocks, as well as oil prices. Unless you have a crystal ball, it’s always a good idea to diversify your portfolio across a variety of asset classes and market sectors. That way losses in some investments are likely to be offset by gains in others.

In recent years, the wealthy also have benefited from generous tax breaks provided by the Tax Cut and Jobs Act. To diversify gains achieved during the pandemic, they may take advantage of provisions from this legislation, such as the conservation easement charitable deduction. This can be claimed when purchasing land with strong development potential and then donating it to a land trust or government agency. This might create a higher tax deduction based on the appraised value. A similar approach can be used with the Opportunity Zone tax break. This eliminates taxes on capital gains earned from long-term investments in businesses or developments in specific low-income areas of the country.

Rest assured, while vaccines will lead the way to recovery from the pandemic, other crises will follow – as will opportunities to make money on them. Some of them are even easy to predict. After all, the exacerbation of climate change is evident in the increase and severity of extreme weather events. This offers two avenues for an investment opportunity. The first is reactive, such as rebuilding what has been damaged or destroyed. The second is preventive, which means investing in renewable energy resources that reduce carbon emissions, such as solar, wind, hydro, tidal, geothermal, and biomass energy solutions.

It is important to recognize, however, that we can’t always predict what type of crisis will happen next. Therefore, it is inadvisable to try to time the market for investments, particularly when saving for a long-term goal such as retirement. Instead, consider aligning your assets with investments that help build a stronger society, such as sustainable energy, technology advances, and healthcare innovation.

The biggest takeaway here is that the key to crisis opportunism is to be well-capitalized with liquid assets that can repositioned quickly. It is no accident that economic declines are often most advantageous to the extremely wealthy. If you were able to save more money during the pandemic due to less opportunity to travel or spend on other indulgences, consider using this windfall to position your investment portfolio for crisis opportunism in the future.

What To Know About Filing For Bankruptcy

About one million Americans file for personal bankruptcy each year, with one in 10 households having filed at some point. Given the loss of jobs, reduced income, and the coronavirus recession in 2020, those numbers could increase this year if the economic recovery is not both swift and omnipresent.

There are two main types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7, which is the more common option, will liquidate the filer’s assets in order to discharge all or a portion of the outstanding debt. People generally choose this route because they are in way over their heads and do not earn enough income to pay their debts in any type of normal time frame.

Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides some immediate breathing room while helping the filer develop a payment plan based on a reduced percentage of the debt. This percentage is determined by how much he makes and what he can feasibly pay each month. While a Chapter 7 bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a bit less punitive staying on record for only seven years. As the filer works to pay down his debt and sticks to his plan, his credit score will gradually improve over time. In some cases, the debtor may be able to apply for an FHA, VA, or USDA home loan a year after his bankruptcy filing, or two to four years if applying for a conventional mortgage.

Bankruptcy can provide immediate relief from creditors calling and threatening to evict, foreclose, repossess, shut off, or garnish wages. However, be prepared for some level of pain, such as the bankruptcy court seizing property to be sold to pay your creditors, and/or your credit cards being canceled.

You may see television ads to get debt relief without having to file bankruptcy. Be aware that while these programs may negotiate a debt settlement to something you can better afford, they will not skirt the wrath of the dreaded credit rating agencies. Any time an entity negotiates a reduction in your debt, this will show up as a negative factor on your credit score, and will likely remain that way for many years. A more recent issue that not everyone is aware of is that some employers have started checking the credit reports of job applicants. This makes it all the more difficult to pay off your debt if you can’t get a job because of your past payment history. Your best option is to secure a reliable income before you work with a debt relief agency or file for bankruptcy.

Before entering any type of debt relief program, it’s a good idea to consult with a qualified, non-profit credit counseling agency for a free debt analysis. Don’t go to just anyone; make sure it is a legitimate resource which, by law, is required to serve your best interest. Shady debt counseling vendors are inclined to recommend a debt solution that works out better for the agency than their clients.

If you do decide to file for bankruptcy, be aware that court fees cost about $300, plus lawyer fees tend to run between $1,000 and $3,000 for a Chapter 7 filing and approximately $3,000 to $6,000 for a Chapter 13 filing.

Last Minute Financial Moves for Year’s End

There are certain year-end financial transactions that must clear by Dec. 31 to be reported on the 2020 tax return. It’s important to take a good look at your financial portfolio in light of the plethora of unusual events that occurred this year. Now is a good time to see if you have fallen off track and reposition your portfolio for better opportunities in 2021.

Investment Portfolio

Despite the dramatic stock market drop that accompanied the outbreak of COVID-19 on our shores, markets have recovered remarkably well. This means the traditional strategy of harvesting gains and losses at year-end could be appropriate for many investors. When your capital losses are more than your capital gains for the year, you can claim up to $3,000 to reduce your taxable income and even carry over remainder losses on next year’s tax return.

Harvesting is also a good way to rebalance your asset allocation strategy, so you are well-positioned to meet long-term goals starting in the New Year. If you are interested in selling winners and losers to mitigate your 2020 tax liability, make sure, these transactions are fully completed by Dec. 31.

Tip: Some investors might be tempted to sell shares for a loss and then buy back into that position. However, take pains to avoid running afoul of the “wash rule,” which is when an investor purchases a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of a loss sale. Doing so diminishes the losses you can claim on your taxes, even if you buy it back in January. This also can occur inadvertently through automatic dividend and capital gains reinvestment purchases – so monitor your holdings and make sure there’s a 30-day lag between sale and reinvestment.

Retirement Accounts

For workers who invest in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you have until the end of the year to defer up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) from your paycheck. If you’d like to stash away more money, the combined annual limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for age 50+) for 2020. Note, however, that contributions for these accounts may continue to be made up until you file your 2020 tax return.

Tip: Given the potential for higher taxes under the new administration, it might be wise to max out after-tax Roth IRA contributions while taxes are low. When taxes are higher, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s tend to be more valuable because tax-deferred contributions help reduce current income. You also might want to convert a portion of traditional IRA funds to a Roth this year to take advantage of the lower tax environment. Convert only a strategic portion to avoid tipping your current income into a higher tax bracket.

Retirement Plan Withdrawals

You have only until year-end to withdraw up to $100,000 without penalty from a retirement plan if you have been directly affected by COVID-19 this year. Note, too, that subsequent income taxes on this withdrawal either can be spread out over a three-year period or avoided entirely if you re-contribute the funds over the next three years.

Tip: Legislation passed early in the year permits retirees to skip taking required minimum distributions in 2020. However, because the stock market has recovered nicely, and in light of higher taxes in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take this distribution before year-end.

Education Savings Accounts

If your college student received a tuition refund this year because the class experience moved online, be aware that any refunds of College Savings 529 plans must be deposited back into that account. Otherwise, that money is considered a distribution for non-qualified expenses. Make that deposit back into the 529 account by year-end to avoid any taxes or penalties.

Tip: Parents and grandparents can reduce their estates by making a year-end gift to a student’s 529 plan. You may gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) per beneficiary without incurring gift taxes or affecting your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million).