By LEN WEISER-VARON

The Stephen Beck, Jr., Achieving a Better Life Experience Act of 2014 (ABLE Act), one of the few recent examples of bipartisan cooperation on a new category of tax and budget expenditure, is both well-intentioned in its principles and cumbersome in its details, another example of the proposition that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.  Recent and imminent actions by regulators at the United States Treasury and Social Security Administration evidence commendable dedication to sanding off some of the rougher edges of the ABLE legislation.  Such beneficial regulatory guidance reflects, in both substance and timing,  extraordinary attention by federal regulators to concerns raised by the state instrumentalities charged with establishing and administering ABLE programs and by disability advocacy groups that have pushed and prodded to make this new form of savings and investment account for individuals with severe disabilities a reality.  Aided by this healthy cooperation among regulators, administrators and beneficiaries and the developments described below, ABLE programs should become available in various states during 2016.

  •  Treasury Issues Favorable Advance Guidance for ABLE Program Administrators

Treasury issued proposed ABLE regulations on June 29, 2015, has received comments on those regulations and is expected to publish a revised version of such regulations as final regulations when feasible taking into account the regulatory process.  It is anticipated that some ABLE programs will be launched in advance of the issuance of such final regulations.  However, the National Association of State Treasurers’ College Savings Plan Network (CSPN) (which now includes entities involved in establishing Section 529A ABLE programs as well as  entities involved with Section 529 college savings programs) had requested advance guidance from Treasury on three points which, if not resolved by Treasury prior to its issuance of final regulations, could have delayed the structuring and launching of ABLE programs.  On November 20, 2015, Treasury issued Notice 2015-81, providing such expedited advance guidance and agreeing with CSPN’s requested resolution on each of the three points.

In particular. Notice 2015-81 affirms that, notwithstanding contrary language in the proposed regulations, the final regulations under Internal Revenue Code Section 529A will provide that:

  1. An ABLE program will not be required to track or report the use of distributions from an ABLE account.  Although an ABLE program will need to report the amount of distributions and allocate distribution amounts to earnings or return of basis, it will not need to determine the amount of each distribution used by the account beneficiary for, respectively, non-housing qualified disability expenses,  housing-related qualified disability expenses, or expenses that are not qualified disability expenses.  The ABLE account beneficiary, however, will need to maintain records sufficient to allocate ABLE account distributions to qualified or non-qualified expenditures for tax purposes, and, in certain instances as discussed below, to  qualified non-housing, qualified housing or nonqualified expenditures for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) eligibility purposes.
  2. An ABLE program will not be required to request the social security number or other tax identification number (TIN) of each third party contributor to an ABLE account at the time a contribution is made, if (as will be the case for most if not all programs) the program has a system in place to identify and reject excess contributions and excess aggregate contributions before they are deposited into an ABLE account. (If, however, an excess contribution or excess aggregate contribution is deposited into an ABLE account, the qualified ABLE program will be required to request the TIN of the contributor making the excess contribution or excess aggregate contribution.)
  3. In instances where the ABLE statute conditions ABLE eligibility on the filing of a signed physician’s diagnosis of the relevant disability, an ABLE program will not be required to collect or review such physician diagnosis, but can rely on a certification under penalties of perjury that the individual (or the individual’s agent under a power of attorney or a parent or legal guardian of the individual) has the signed physician’s diagnosis, and that the signed diagnosis will be retained and provided to the ABLE program or the IRS upon request.  Notice 2015-81 indicates that the final regulations will “likely” require that such certification include the name and address of the diagnosing physician and the date of the diagnosis, and “may also provide” that the certification “may” include information provided by the physician as to the “categorization of the disability” that could determine, under the particular state’s program, the appropriate frequency of required recertification.   (The need for annual recertification is another sensitive topic from the perspective of state ABLE program administrators, but the proposed regulations suggest that the final regulations will be sufficiently flexible that states that do not wish to require annual recertification will not be obligated to do so.)  The Notice helpfully states that if the final regulations require more as to the signed physician diagnosis than the certification of its possession by the provider of the certification and that the diagnosis will be retained and provided to the ABLE program or the IRS upon request, such additional requirements will not apply to certifications obtained by an ABLE program prior to the effective date of such final regulations.

Appreciation is due to Catherine Hughes at Treasury and to Terri Harris and Sean Barnett at IRS for their attentiveness and responsiveness to the request for such advance guidance.

  •  Social Security Administration Expected to Issue Favorable Guidance for ABLE Beneficiaries

For SSI benefit recipients, the beneficial treatment of ABLE account balances and distributions for SSI eligibility purposes is at least as important as their beneficial tax treatment.  Although the Social Security Administration has yet to issue formal guidance clarifying that treatment, it is expected to do so through an update to its Program Operations Manual System (POMS) before the end of 2015.  Based on informal communications with and by SSA officials, the treatment is expected to facilitate the use of ABLE accounts without adverse impact on SSI benefits.

Broadly speaking, SSI benefits eligibility is reduced and may be eliminated to the extent the applicable beneficiary has countable assets or countable income in excess of extremely modest amounts.  However, the ABLE Act provides that ABLE account balances are disregarded for SSI purposes except to the extent they exceed $100,000, and that ABLE account distributions for qualified disability expenses also are disregarded except in the case of distributions for housing expenses.

The statutory exclusions leave some ambiguity as to the timing and methodology of determinations that particular ABLE account distributions are excluded from SSI benefits determinations.  The treatment expected to be described in the POMS update is as follows:  Distributions of ABLE account balances of $100,000 or less will not constitute countable income, as such amounts already are owned by the SSI beneficiary at the time of the distribution. Distributions from ABLE accounts will not constitute countable assets if expended within the same month as the distribution is received by the beneficiary from the account, irrespective of the nature of the expenditure.  Distributions from ABLE accounts that are not expended within the same month as the distribution is received by the beneficiary will not be counted as a countable asset if ultimately expended on a qualified disability expense that is not a housing expense.  An ABLE account distribution expended on a housing expense or non-qualified expense in a later month than the month in which the distribution is received may be treated retroactively as a countable asset in all months between distribution and expenditure, potentially requiring the beneficiary to refund SSI benefits received during that period.

Bottom line:  An SSI recipient should not experience any adverse impact from the existence of an ABLE account as long as the account balance is kept at or below $100,000 (probably measured as of each month end), and, subject to confirmation when the relevant POMS update is published by SSA, as long as distributions from the ABLE account are expended in the month of receipt.  Expending ABLE account distributions in a month subsequent to the month of receipt will not produce an adverse result if the expenditure is a qualified disability expense that is not a housing expense, but may create some risk to SSI benefits if the documentation of the expenditure is inadequate or the classification of the expenditure is debatable.

By LEONARD WEISER-VARON

The IRS’s recently-published proposed regulations for Section 529A qualified ABLE programs have taken some wind out of the sails of state program administrators and potential program managers who had hoped for regulations that hewed closer to the requirements in effect for qualified tuition programs under Section 529, on which Section 529A was based.  Some state officials and would-be program managers are evaluating whether cost-effective ABLE programs can be launched given what, at first blush, appear to be substantially greater administrative burdens imposed on state programs by the proposed ABLE regulations.

The hesitation provoked by the proposed regulations is understandable when one compares the IRS’s proposed administrative requirements to those applicable to Section 529 programs. Section 529 programs are not required to check whether an account owner is eligible to open an account, are not required to check on an annual basis whether the account owner’s status has changed, and are not required to inquire into or track the use of account withdrawals.  (As originally enacted, Section 529 did make programs responsible for determining whether distributions were qualified or unqualified, a requirement so unworkable that Congress amended Section 529 to eliminate it and make the recipient responsible for documenting the use of the distribution upon inquiry by the IRS.)

In marked contrast, the proposed ABLE regulations would require that ABLE programs do all of the above.

The resulting cost issue for ABLE programs and their potential customers is obvious. Due to statutory restrictions under Section 529A, annual contributions to ABLE accounts cannot exceed an inflation-indexed $14,000; Section 529 accounts have no such limit. Moreover, each state’s 529A program is limited to that state’s residents, unless another state elects to have its residents use the other state’s program instead of establishing its own program.  Section 529 programs, on the other hand, can gather assets from the entire nation.  If one adds to the substantially smaller projected amount of a particular ABLE program’s assets under management the expenses associated with the increased staff and systems programming necessitated by the additional verification and recordkeeping requirements imposed by the proposed regulations, the math is simple: greater expenses divided into fewer assets equals substantially higher program expenses to be recovered from program participants, and therefore reduced investment returns for the future expenses of disabled individuals.

A fair reading of the ABLE Act is that Congress intended the IRS, not the state programs, to be the watchdog that would ensure that ABLE programs are used by the disabled and for qualified disability expenses, and intended the Social Security Administration to determine whether ABLE account distributions are used for housing or unqualified expenses (in which case they are factored into the disabled individual’s eligibility for SSI benefits, whereas ABLE account distributions for non-housing qualified disability expenses are disregarded.)  But in an era where federal agency resources, particularly the IRS’s, are stretched, the proposed regulations have been drafted to effectively shift that responsibility, and the attendant costs, to the state programs.

The question the state programs and their potential contractors are struggling with is what exactly these unexpected and unwelcome responsibilities entail, and how much expense has been shifted from the federal government to the disabled community.  If the well-intentioned and long-sought ABLE Act is to achieve its objective, it will be in the interest of Congress, the IRS and the disability community, not just the state programs, to ensure that the administrative burden is reduced to the minimum necessary to make these programs function as intended.

The proposed regulations are not technically binding before they are finalized, and it is possible that, following the current 90 day comment period, the IRS will issue final regulations that lighten some of the proposed burden on ABLE program administrators.  But whether and when any more program-friendly final regulations will be issued is unknown, and the disability community deserves to have access to ABLE programs sooner than the indefinite future.  Unless and until the IRS, by advance notice or other clarification, provides better answers, individual states that wish to go forward with ABLE programs in advance of final regulations will need to reach a comfort level that they can comply with the IRS’s unexpected views on what a state must do to maintain its ABLE program’s beneficial tax status without making the pass-through costs of operating an ABLE program so expensive as to potentially outweigh the tax benefit.

A consensus on what practices are sufficient to comply with the proposed regulations without saddling ABLE programs with impracticable and expensive procedures will take some time to evolve.  Here is an initial perspective:

1)       Account–opening:

The proposed regulations state that “[a] qualified ABLE program must specify the documentation that an individual must provide, both at the time an ABLE account is established for that individual and thereafter, in order to ensure that the designated beneficiary of the ABLE account is, and continues to be, an eligible individual.”

For those account owners who are ABLE-eligible because they are eligible for SSI or SSDI disability benefits, the preamble to the proposed regulations suggests that “[f] or example, a qualified ABLE program could require the individual to provide a copy of a benefit verification letter from the Social Security Administration and allow the individual to certify, under penalties of perjury, that the blindness or disability occurred before the date on which the individual attained age 26.”  This suggestion may be workable if the Social Security Administration will provide such benefit verification letters with respect to the then-current tax year in short order upon request by an individual wishing to open an ABLE account.  Otherwise, if an individual can only provide a prior year benefit verification letter to the state program, states will need to decide whether, in connection with an account opening, they can rely upon the account owner’s certification, under penalties of perjury, that such eligibility status has not changed since the year in which the benefit verification letter submitted to the program was issued by the Social Security Administration.

As to those account owners who are ABLE-eligible under Section 529A because they file an eligibility certification and a physician diagnosis with the Secretary of Treasury, the preamble to the proposed regulations states that “[w]hile evidence of an individual’s eligibility based on entitlement to Social Security benefits should be objectively verifiable, the sufficiency of a disability certification that an individual is an eligible individual for purposes of section 529A might not be as easy to establish.”  The proposed regulations state that “a disability certification will be deemed to be filed with the Secretary [of Treasury] once the qualified ABLE program has received the disability certification”, which “deemed” filing, according to the preamble, is designed  “to facilitate an eligible individual’s ability to establish an ABLE account without undue delay.”

Taking the IRS at its word that the shifting of the certification filing from the Treasury, as specified in the statute, to the states, as specified in  the proposed regulations, is designed to “facilitate” account-opening “without delay,” it seems sensible to interpret the regulations as requiring a state to confirm no more than that a certification facially stating what the proposed regulations require has been signed or e-signed by the account owner (or his or her agent, parent or guardian), and is accompanied by a physician’s signed or e-signed letter facially providing the diagnosis on which the account owner’s certification relies.

Based on the proposed regulations, it appears that the certification filed with the ABLE program by or on behalf of the account owner must be signed or e-signed under pains and penalties of perjury and should state something along the following lines:

“(i)(A) I have the following medically determinable physical or mental impairment: _____________________________.  This impairment results in marked and severe functional limitations (as defined below), and—

(1) Can be expected to result in death; or

(2) Has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months; or

(B) I am blind (within the meaning of section 1614(a)(2) of the Social Security Act);

(ii) Such blindness or disability occurred before the date of my 26th birthday.

For purposes of this certification, “marked and severe functional limitations” means  the standard of disability in the Social Security Act for children claiming Supplemental Security Income for the Aged, Blind, and Disabled (SSI) benefits based on disability (see 20 CFR 416.906). Specifically, this is a level of severity that meets, medically equals, or functionally equals the severity of any listing in appendix 1 of subpart P of 20 CFR part 404, but without regard to age. (See 20 CFR 416.906, 416.924 and 416.926a.) Such phrase also includes any impairment or standard of disability identified in future guidance published in the Internal Revenue Bulletin. Consistent with the regulations of the Social Security Administration, the level of severity is determined by taking into account the effect of the individual’s prescribed treatment. (See 20 CFR 416.930.)  Conditions listed in the “List of Compassionate Allowances Conditions” maintained by the Social Security Administration (at www.socialsecurity.gov/compassionateallowances/conditions.htm) are deemed to meet the requirements of clause (i) of this certification.”

Based on the proposed regulations, it appears that the physician’s diagnosis accompanying the account owner’s certification must be signed or e-signed by the physician and should state:

“I hereby certify that I am a physician meeting the criteria of section 1861(r)(1) of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 1395x(r)).  I further certify that I have examined ____________ and that, based on my examination, I have determined that s/he has the following physical or mental impairment: ________________________.”

The ABLE program administrator would need to determine that the account owner’s certification has been signed or e-signed in the name of the account owner or by someone who has certified that he or she is the account owner’s agent, parent or guardian, and that the diagnosis inserted in the blank of such certification matches the diagnosis in the blank of the physician’s diagnosis, and that the physician’s diagnosis is signed or e-signed.

It should be noted that draft tax instructions for Form 5498-QA released by the IRS require a program to report to the IRS annually, for each account and by code number, “the type of disability for which the designated beneficiary is receiving ABLE qualifying benefits.” The code menu on the draft IRS instructions is:

Code 1-  Developmental Disorders: Autistic Spectrum Disorder, Asperger’s Disorder, Developmental Delays and Learning Disabilities

Code 2 – Intellectual Disability: “may be reported as mild, moderate or severe intellectual disability”

Code 3 – Psychiatric Disorders: Schizophrenia, Major depressive disorder, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Anorexia nervosa, Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD), Bipolar disorder

Code 4 – Nervous Disorders: Blindness; Deafness; Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy, Spina Bifida, Juvenile-onset Huntington’s disease, Multiple sclerosis, Severe sensoneural hearing loss, Congenital cataracts

Code 5 – Congenital anomalies: Chromosomal abnormalities, including Down Syndrome, Osteogenesis imperfecta, Xeroderma pigmentosum, Spinal muscular atrophy, Fragile X syndrome, Edwards syndrome

Code 6 – Respiratory disorders: Cystic Fibrosis

Code 7 – Other: includes Tetralogy of Fallot, Hypoplastic left heart syndrome, End-stage liver disease, Juvenile-onset rheumatoid arthritis, Sickle cell disease, Hemophilia, and any other disability not listed under Codes 1-6.

The tax instructions state that “the … information will only be used for aggregate reporting purposes as required by law.”

The notion that a state ABLE program established to provide investment accounts should have any role in determining which of the above panoply of medical conditions, if any, an account applicant suffers from sends off all sorts of alarm bells for many of those involved in structuring such programs. This proposed requirement can only be met by the relevant state program, if it can be met at all, by coding into the Form 5498 whatever condition the applicant and the physician have filled in on the forms submitted when the account is established. Even that will require coding additional fields into the ABLE programs’ operating system and may require staff to translate the conditions specified in the application materials into the appropriate code. And in the case of applicants who establish ABLE eligibility via eligibility for SSI or SSDI benefits, the diagnosis may not be apparent from the benefits letter submitted as proof. This is an unwarranted level of complexity and expense for the questionable benefit of then adding up all the painstakingly gathered disability codes into an aggregate report that has nothing to do with the ABLE program’s operations. But unless and until the IRS signals relief from this proposed requirement, ABLE programs that wish to go forward will need to design systems capable of generating such coding, at the expense of ABLE program participants.

2)           Annual recertification:

As noted above, the proposed regulations require that programs specify the documentation that must be provided after an account is opened to establish the account owner’s continued disabled status.  According to the proposed regulations,  “a qualified ABLE program may choose different methods of ensuring a designated beneficiary’s status as an eligible individual and may impose different periodic recertification requirements for different types of impairments.”  The proposed regulations include several impractical suggestions on compliance that presume that the state program has expertise on the likely length of particular disabilities (see the above list) and the likelihood of a cure being found for particular disabilities.  However, the proposed regulations also state: “If the qualified ABLE program imposes an enforceable obligation on the designated beneficiary or other person with signature authority over the ABLE account to promptly report changes in the designated beneficiary’s condition that would result in the designated beneficiary’s failing to satisfy the definition of eligible individual, the program also may provide that a certification is valid until the end of the taxable year in which the change in the designated beneficiary’s condition occurred.”

It seems likely that most states will follow this suggestion and include a requirement of such notice of change in disability status in the participation agreement or similar agreement executed or adopted by an account owner when the account is opened.  There is no reason to think that such a covenant by the account owner is any less “enforceable” than any other contractual agreement by the account owner, but as the proposed regulations are unclear on what the IRS means by “enforceable”, it may be prudent to state that the IRS is a third-party beneficiary of that particular covenant, so that the IRS can enforce it as it sees fit in the event it is breached by the account owner.

3) Tracking distributions:

The most perplexing provision in the proposed regulations states that “[a] qualified ABLE program must establish safeguards to distinguish between distributions used for the payment of qualified disability expenses and other distributions, and to permit the identification of the amounts distributed for housing expenses as that term is defined for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income program of the Social Security Administration.”

The proposed regulations also provide that “[i]f the total amount distributed from an ABLE account to or for the benefit of the designated beneficiary of that ABLE account during his or her taxable year does not exceed the qualified disability expenses of the designated beneficiary for that year, no amount distributed is includible in the gross income of the designated beneficiary for that year.”  Accordingly, for tax purposes, particular distributions are not made for qualified or unqualified purposes, or for housing purposes; instead, distributions may be requested at any point in the year, and then are simply compared in the aggregate to the account owner’s aggregate qualified disability expenses for the applicable tax year.

Because the account owner is not required for tax purposes to link a particular withdrawal to a particular expenditure, it is mystifying how the IRS and the Social Security Administration think programs can discharge this tracking and reporting duty.  No guidance whatsoever is provided on this point in the proposed regulations.  Given that some portion of the disabled community is expected to use ABLE accounts as transaction accounts, a requirement that states demand and examine invoices or receipts for each requested distribution, and determine in each case whether the amount is qualified or non-qualified and, if qualified, relates to housing, would substantially delay distributions and impose staffing requirements on programs or their contractors that would dramatically increase the expense ratios of ABLE investments. A distribution verification requirement is exactly what was amended out of Section 529 by Congress, and Congress did not reintroduce it statutorily when it enacted Section 529A.

This distribution tracking requirement, if not eliminated or clarified promptly by the IRS and the Social Security Administration, risks delaying or stopping many potential ABLE programs, particularly if interpreted to require anything more from the state program than a “check the box” section on distribution request forms.  States that are willing to proceed pending further clarification of this troubling element of the proposed regulations will likely provide account owners with distribution forms that ask that each requested distribution be broken down into subtotals relating to housing expenses, other qualified disability expenses, and unqualified expenses, all as determined and certified by the account owner under pains and penalties of perjury.  The state programs will make the required monthly reports to the Social Security Administration on the basis of such certifications.  Even the tracking of these subtotals and the related systems programming requirements will impose requirements on ABLE programs, and resulting expenses for ABLE program investors, that Section 529 programs are not burdened with and that are properly left between the Social Security Administration and those account owners receiving federal disability benefits.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

The IRS today published, right on deadline, its proposed regulations relating to Section 529A state-sponsored “qualified ABLE programs,” under which  tax-advantaged investment accounts may be established to fund future “qualified disability expenses” of eligible disabled individuals.

The regulations are detailed and this posting will not attempt to summarize them in their entirety. Rather, a few provisions of the proposed regulations are highlighted below, along with some initial reactions.

Applicability: The regulations are issued as proposed regulations, and therefore technically are not in effect. Comments are due within 90 days of the publication date in the Federal Register, and a public hearing on the regulations will be held on October 14, 2015. The preamble to the regulations indicates taxpayers and state programs can rely on the proposed regulations until final regulations are adopted. Somewhat perplexingly, the preamble also indicates that the final regulations will be applicable to taxable years beginning after December 31, 2014. To the extent this suggests that the final regulations will be applicable retroactively, it appears inconsistent with the promise made in IRS Notice 2015-18 that “[t]he Treasury Department and the IRS intend to provide transition relief with regard to necessary changes to ensure that the state programs and accounts meet the requirements in the [regulatory] guidance, including providing sufficient time after issuance of the guidance in order for changes to be implemented.” One hopes that the IRS will clarify that such a transition period will be provided after final regulations are adopted, versus retroactive application of such final regulations to any taxpayer or program that has not complied with the proposed regulations; otherwise, programs and taxpayers may be forced to comply with the proposed regulations even though they are not legally effective.

Who May Establish an ABLE Account: Section 529A requires that the tax owner of any ABLE account be the eligible disabled beneficiary. The proposed regulations provide that if the beneficiary cannot establish the account on his or her own, it may be established on the disabled beneficiary’s behalf by an agent under power of attorney or, if there is no such agent, by a parent or legal guardian. This narrows the field of potential relatives who can establish an ABLE account for a disabled individual, and eliminates the ability of a non-parent to establish such an account unless he/she has a power of attorney or is a legal guardian. It also appears to preclude, or at least not acknowledge, the use of custodial accounts, such as an UTMA account, which is surprising.

Eligible individual determination: The proposed regulations are disappointing from the perspective of administrative ease and clarity on the key question of what documentation is required to establish and maintain an ABLE account. As an initial matter, the regulations cast the responsibility for verifying eligibility status on the state programs. The regulations indicate that a “qualified ABLE program must specify the documentation that an individual must provide, both at the time an ABLE account is established for that individual and thereafter, in order to ensure that the designated beneficiary of the ABLE account is, and continues to be, an eligible individual.”

There are two statutory methods for an individual to qualify as eligible for an ABLE account. One is the filing of a disability certification with the Secretary of the Treasury that certifies that the individual has a qualifying disability or is blind and that such disability or blindness occurred before the individual’s 26th birthday; the certification must include a physician-signed diagnosis of the relevant disability or blindness. The proposed regulations provide that “a disability certification will be deemed to be filed with the Secretary once the qualified ABLE program has received the disability certification.” The regulations are silent on what level of diligence the state program must engage in, if any, to establish that papers that purport to be a disability certification comply with the substantive requirements (including type of diagnosis) of the regulatory definition of a disability certification. This provision is likely to be perceived as problematic by state programs and to provoke a high level of pushback during the comment period from state administrators who believe that eligibility status should be between the taxpayer and the federal government, not something that a state has any role in verifying.

An alternative statutory basis for ABLE account eligibility is eligibility for Social Security Act benefits based on blindness or disability that occurred before the individual’s 26th birthday. The proposed regulations are silent on a state’s role in verifying this type of eligibility. The preamble to the proposed regulations states that “for example, a qualified ABLE program could require the individual to provide a copy of a benefit verification letter from the Social Security Administration and allow the individual to certify, under penalties of perjury, that the blindness or disability occurred before the individual’s 26th birthday.” While this non-regulatory example appears potentially less onerous in terms of state verification responsibility than the unclear role of a state program under the proposed regulations upon its receipt of a disability certification, it still raises some potentially thorny questions, such as, for example, whether a program is required to make a competency determination before relying upon a declaration signed by a disabled individual.

The proposed regulations’ treatment of eligibility determinations for years following the year in which an account is established is even vaguer. The regulations provide that “a qualified ABLE program may choose different methods of ensuring a designated beneficiary’s status as an eligible individual and may impose different periodic recertification requirements for different types of impairments.” The proposed regulations suggest that, with respect to the frequency of annual recertifications, ABLE programs “may take into consideration whether an impairment is incurable and, if so, the likelihood that a cure may be found in the future,” a suggestion that casts state officials entrusted with administering a financing program in the combined role of physicians and Nostradamus. The proposed regulations further suggest that a state program may establish a sliding scale of frequency of recertification based on the type of impairment. Less fantastically, the regulations suggest that “[i]f the qualified ABLE program imposes an enforceable obligation on the designated beneficiary or other person with signature authority over the ABLE account to promptly report changes in the designated beneficiary’s condition that would result in the designated beneficiary’s failing to satisfy the definition of eligible individual, the program also may provide that a certification is valid until the end of the taxable year in which the change in the designated beneficiary’s condition occurred.” This type of presumption that an individual continues to be eligible unless the program receives notice to the contrary is on the right track, but what constitutes an “enforceable obligation” by a disabled individual or his or her agent, parent or guardian to report a change in condition is anybody’s guess.

Residency requirement: Consistent with Section 529A, the proposed regulations require that, at the time an ABLE account is established, the designated beneficiary must be a resident of the state offering the program or a resident of a state without a program that has contracted with such other state for purposes of making its residents eligible to participate in such program. The proposed regulations state that for purposes of such residency requirement residency is determined under the law of the designated beneficiary’s state of residence. There is no guidance on whether any proof of residency is required or whether a state may rely on a certification made by or on behalf of the beneficiary as his or her state of residency. The proposed regulations confirm that a change in the beneficiary’s state of residency after an ABLE account is established does not affect the beneficiary’s right to continue to use the applicable ABLE account.

Cumulative contributions limit: The proposed regulations affirm that for purposes of the statutory cumulative contributions limit, which equals the cumulative limit imposed by the applicable state under its Section 529 qualified tuition program, it is permissible for the program to refuse additional contributions that would cause the limit to be exceeded (versus tracking the lifetime contributions to the account, irrespective of investment gains or losses.) This methodology is used by many Section 529 programs but had not been officially blessed by the IRS in that context.

Qualified disability expenses: The proposed regulations provide a hoped-for generous definition of “qualified disability expenses” which states that such term “includes basic living expenses and [is] not limited to items for which there is a medical necessity or which solely benefit a disabled individual.”

State role regarding qualified disability expenses: Quite unexpectedly, the proposed regulations state that “[a] qualified ABLE program must establish safeguards to distinguish between distributions used for the payment of qualified disability expenses and other distributions, and to permit the identification of amounts distributed for housing expenses as that term is defined for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income program.” This purported duty of state programs to monitor the use of distributions from ABLE accounts has no basis in the Section 529A statutory language, is inconsistent with the manner in which similar language in Section 529 has been construed by the IRS, and is at odds with other provisions of the proposed regulations that provide for qualified distribution expenses to be determined by the taxpayer on an annual basis, not by tracing of particular distributions to particular expenses. This provision is highly problematic from a practical as well as a legal perspective and will likely provoke a high level of pushback during the comment period.

Medicaid lien: The proposed regulations state that an ABLE program “must provide that a portion or all of the balance remaining in an ABLE account of a deceased designated beneficiary must be distributed to a State that files a claim against the designated beneficiary or the ABLE account itself with respect to benefits provided to the designated beneficiary under the State’s Medicaid plan … after … the date on which the ABLE account, or any ABLE account from which amounts were rolled over or transferred to the ABLE account of the same designated beneficiary, was opened….” The proposed regulations provide no guidance on whether the program must keep an ABLE account open for a particular period of time following a designated beneficiary’s death, or whether the beneficiary’s estate can direct closure of the account at any time and distribution to the estate of all amounts remaining in the account.

Reporting: The proposed regulations include detailed reporting requirements for ABLE programs, including references to new forms to be used by state programs in reporting data regarding the establishment of ABLE accounts (Form 5498-QA) and in reporting distribution data (Form 1099-QA). The preamble to the proposed regulations also references a Congressional report “that States should work with the Commissioner of Social Security to identify data elements for the monthly reports [required to be submitted to the Commissioner of Social Security], including the type of qualified disability expenses.” As noted above, the suggestion that States will have a duty to report types of qualified disability expenses is both legally and practically problematic.

 

 

By LEN WEISER-VARON

Pi Day comes but once a century, on 3/14/15. The Internal Revenue Service receives praise approximately as frequently. But the IRS deserves applause for its Notice 2015-18, released March 10, 2015, giving the green light to states to proceed with the establishment of tax-free investment programs for the disabled under new Section 529A of the Internal Revenue Code.

Section 529A, which became effective January 1, 2015, grants tax-free treatment to the earnings in so-called ABLE accounts established for eligible disabled beneficiaries and used for qualified disability expenses. As is the case with Section 529 programs, which offer tax-free investment for higher education expenses, Section 529A programs must be established by state instrumentalities and must comply with a variety of statutory requirements. But unlike Section 529, which permits anyone to establish a Section 529 account (subject to the imposition of taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s higher education expenses), Section 529A imposes restrictions on the front end designed to ensure that the account beneficiary is disabled. (Section 529A likewise imposes taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s qualified disability expenses.)

Many families with children or other relatives who meet Section 529A’s disability definition and the statute’s requirement that the disability have occurred before age 26 are understandably eager to establish nest eggs that are not only tax-free but also, by statute, disregarded (up to a balance of $100,000) for purposes of determining the beneficiary’s financial eligibility for federal disability benefits. However, states seeking to make ABLE accounts available to their residents must work through a host of legal, contractual and investment option issues before launching these new programs.

By releasing Notice 2015-18, the Treasury Department and IRS have addressed, wisely and effectively, one factor that threatened to delay the launch of ABLE programs: uncertainty over how the Treasury Department and IRS will interpret certain provisions of Section 529A.

In particular, while Section 529A is clear that an ABLE account beneficiary’s disability qualification is determined by or through the federal government (through the beneficiary’s receipt of Social Security disability benefits or the beneficiary’s filing with the Treasury Department of a disability certification accompanied by a physician’s diagnosis), it is silent on whether the state program has some unspecified duty to obtain assurances or confirm that such actions, which don’t involve the state program, have occurred. Section 529A, which permits disability status to be established at any time during a tax year, also does not specify the treatment of account contributions made to or received by an ABLE account on a date in a tax year that precedes the date on which the beneficiary satisfies the disability status requirements for the applicable tax year. In addition, there is no statutory clarity on what a program is required to do to confirm compliance with Section 529A’s state residency restrictions.

The legislation pursuant to which Section 529A was enacted requires that the Treasury Department promulgate regulations under Section 529A by June 19, 2015 (six months from enactment.) It is unclear whether the Treasury Department will be able to meet this deadline. Even if the Treasury Department were to meet that deadline, some states might have concerns about structuring, much less launching, an ABLE program before there is regulatory guidance resolving some of the statutory ambiguities potentially affecting the program’s tax-exemption under Section 529A.

Notice 2015-18 straightforwardly acknowledges the tax uncertainty concerns and addresses them, asserting that “[t]he Treasury Department and the IRS do not want the lack of guidance to discourage states from enacting their enabling legislation and creating their ABLE programs, which could delay the ability of the families of disabled individuals or others to begin to fund ABLE accounts for those disabled individuals.” The Notice goes on to state that “the Treasury Department and the IRS are assuring states that enact legislation creating an ABLE program in accordance with section 529A, and those individuals establishing ABLE accounts in accordance with such legislation, that they will not fail to receive the benefits of section 529A merely because the legislation or the account documents do not fully comport with the guidance when it is issued.”

The Notice further states that “the Treasury Department and the IRS intend to provide transition relief with regard to necessary changes to ensure that the state programs and accounts meet the requirements in the guidance, including providing sufficient time after issuance of the guidance in order for changes to be implemented.”

This language represents a fairly extraordinary expression by the Treasury and the IRS of their intent to get out of the way as a potential obstacle to, or delaying factor in, the launching of ABLE programs. This approach is sympathetic to the cause and needs of families of disabled individuals, and deserves commendation. Although the Notice will not result in instantaneous availability of ABLE programs given the non-tax complexities of structuring the programs, it makes the states’ task in launching such programs appreciably less daunting.

Notice 2015-18 also includes an advance notice which acknowledges that, although Section 529A requires that the disabled beneficiary of an ABLE account be the account owner, someone other than the disabled beneficiary may have signature authority for the account. The advance notice, unsurprisingly, indicates that the regulatory guidance when issued will preclude any such person with signature authority who is not the account owner from acquiring a beneficial interest in the account, and will require such person to administer the account in the interests of the account owner/beneficiary.

By LEN WEISER-VARON

On December 16, 2014 the U.S. Senate approved the Achieving a Better Life Experience (“ABLE”) legislation previously approved by the House, authorizing state-sponsored tax-exempt savings programs for disability-related expenses. President Obama is expected to sign the legislation (which is part of the “tax-extenders” bill) before the year is out. Pursuant to the legislation, states may establish ABLE programs under which individuals can set up ABLE accounts in which earnings can accumulate and be distributed on a tax-free basis to pay for the expenses of a disabled beneficiary.

The new Section 529A of the Internal Revenue Code, into which the ABLE provisions will be codified, is modeled on the immediately preceding section, pursuant to which “Section 529” college savings programs have been launched nationwide. The perceived inequity of the existence of tax-favored savings accounts permitting parents and others to save for children’s higher education costs but not for the future expenses of children with disabilities produced an increasingly rare consensus in Congress on the enactment of this new tax benefit for individuals.  As stated by one of the legislation’s co-sponsors: “No longer would individuals with disabilities have to stand aside and watch others use IRS-sanctioned tools to lay the groundwork for a brighter future.”

Although the desire to level the playing field, taxwise, for families saving for individuals with disabilities propelled the ABLE statute through a difficult legislative environment, Section 529A is being enacted under budget-neutral requirements requiring offsetting budget cuts to balance out the projected new tax expenditures. This explains various constraints on the funding of Section 529A ABLE accounts that are not present in the case of Section 529 college savings accounts, which were originally authorized as tax-deferred accounts in 1996 and made tax-exempt in 2001.

The substantive provisions of the ABLE legislation, similarities and differences between ABLE programs and Section 529 programs, and additional steps that will be required at the state level before ABLE accounts become available to those anxious to provide for the future of disabled beneficiaries are outlined below.

I.  ABLE Programs and Accounts

a. Residency Requirement

Although the legislation authorizes the federal tax benefits associated with ABLE accounts effective January 1, 2015, such accounts only can be accessed through a state-administered program authorized under state legislation. Unlike Section 529 programs, which have no residency limits and therefore can operate as nationwide programs in which states compete with each other based on state tax incentives and the attractiveness of the investment managers and investment options provided by each program, an ABLE account only may be opened in the program established by the state in which the disabled beneficiary resides, or, if such state has not established an ABLE program, in the program of another state with which the beneficiary’s state of residence has contracted for the purposes of providing its residents access to an ABLE program.

b. Single Account Requirement

Also in contrast to Section 529, only one ABLE account per beneficiary is permitted. Accordingly, once an ABLE account is established for a particular beneficiary, a subsequent ABLE account established by the same or a different person for the same beneficiary will not qualify for the ABLE tax benefits. An exception is contemplated for account rollovers to a different state’s program if a beneficiary changes his or her state of residence, if the beneficiary is changed to another beneficiary residing in a different state or, presumably, if the state of the beneficiary’s residence establishes its own ABLE program after having initially contracted out its ABLE program to another state.

c.  Contribution Limits

The maximum amount that can be contributed to an ABLE account is the same generous maximum contribution limit applicable to Section 529 college savings accounts; in fact, the statute specifies that the ABLE account limit is the limit established by the applicable state for its Section 529 program. Although Section 529 precludes excessive contributions, it does not provide a specific dollar limit, and the formulas used by each state to determine contribution limits to that state’s program vary; many states currently have per beneficiary limits in the range between $300,000 and $400,000.

There are two significant aspects, however, in which the funding of ABLE accounts is restricted relative to the funding of college savings accounts.  First, unlike Section 529, Section 529A imposes an annual per account funding limit equal to the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $14,000 per year), which means that it would take several decades of steady annual contributions to build up to the permissible per beneficiary limit.

Second, the per beneficiary limit imposed under Section 529 is measured against accounts opened in a particular state’s programs; because Section 529 does not restrict the number of states in which accounts for a particular beneficiary can be established, as a practical matter there is no limit on the amount that can be contributed to Section 529 accounts for a single beneficiary. Because Section 529A limits ABLE accounts for a particular beneficiary to a single account in a single state, both the annual and the lifetime contribution limits for an ABLE account beneficiary are meaningful limits.

Because these limits, particularly the annual limit, put ABLE accounts at a disadvantage relative to Section 529 accounts, and ABLE programs at a disadvantage relative to Section 529 programs due to the likelihood of a smaller asset base against which program administrative expenses can be spread, future pressure on Congress to loosen the annual limit on ABLE account contributions can be anticipated.

d. Account Ownership Requirements

Another structural difference between ABLE accounts and Section 529 college savings accounts is that the ABLE legislation defines “designated beneficiary” as “the eligible individual who established an ABLE account and is the owner of the account”, whereas Section  529 permits the account owner to be a different individual (or entity) than the beneficiary. One of the psychologically attractive features of Section  529 accounts is that a parent or other individual can be the account owner, set aside money for the beneficiary and treat the money as transferred to the beneficiary for gift and estate tax purposes, while maintaining total control of the account, including the right, if necessary, to apply the money for the account owner’s purposes, rather than the beneficiary’s (subject to payment of income taxes and a 10% tax penalty on the withdrawn account earnings.) This unique deemed gift arrangement under Section 529 has given the IRS headaches due to concerns about potential circumvention of transfer taxes.

Perhaps in response to such concerns, the ABLE legislation eliminates for ABLE accounts the distinction between the account owner and the beneficiary, and thus requires an irrevocable transfer to the beneficiary by the funder(s) of the ABLE account. In addition, ABLE accounts are ineligible for the 5-year accelerated gifting provision applicable to 529 accounts.

The requirement that an ABLE beneficiary be the account owner is puzzling, particularly given that  many beneficiaries are likely to be minors, and that some of the beneficiaries may not have contracting capacity even when they are adults. This suggests that ABLE accounts may need to be established as UTMA or UGMA accounts or in other forms of individual or corporate custodianship for the account owner/beneficiary.

A related peculiarity is that, as is the case with Section 529 accounts, the ABLE statute permits changes in an account’s designated beneficiary to another “member of the family”, although for ABLE accounts that term is limited to siblings and step-siblings of the beneficiary, whereas for Section 529 accounts the term includes a much wider menu of relatives. Given that an ABLE beneficiary is also required to be the account owner, it appears that a change in account beneficiary also would require a change in account ownership. Moreover, given that such a change would require direction from the account owner, any such change would seem to require direction by the original account owner/beneficiary or by some other individual with power of attorney for the original account owner/beneficiary. This is an area in which regulatory or other guidance is likely to be required.

An additional peculiarity is that the ABLE legislation attempts to provide some bankruptcy protection to ABLE accounts, as is provided for Section 529 accounts.  However, the language protecting ABLE accounts protects ABLE account assets “only if the designated beneficiary of such account was a child, stepchild, grandchild, or stepgrandchild of the debtor.” This language makes sense in the context of Section 529, where the “debtor”/account owner typically is a different individual than the beneficiary. In the case of an ABLE account, where the beneficiary is required to be the account owner, the language offers no protection for a bankruptcy by the account owner/beneficiary, as, notwithstanding some well-known song lyrics, the beneficiary cannot be his or her own child or grandchild.

e. Eligibility Requirements

Under the ABLE legislation, the beneficiary of an ABLE account must be an “eligible individual” at the time the account is established, at the time of any contribution to the account and at the time of a distribution for qualified disability expenses. Eligibility is required to be redetermined for each tax year. To be eligible, an individual must have been determined to be disabled prior to age 26.

There are two ways of satisfying the disability determination. First, an individual meets the eligibility requirement if during the applicable tax year the individual is entitled to Social Security Act benefits based on blindness or disability that occurred before the individual reached age 26. Alternatively, the eligibility requirement can be satisfied if (i) a certification is filed on behalf of the individual for the applicable tax year with the Treasury Secretary, certifying that the individual is blind or has a physical or mental impairment which results in severe functional limitations and which has lasted or is expected to last for a continuous period of at least 12 months or can be expected to result in death, (ii) the certification attests that such blindness or disability occurred prior to age 26 and (iii) the certification includes a diagnosis of the relevant impairment signed by a qualified physician.

The ABLE legislation does not specify what happens if an individual is eligible at the time an account is established and at the time of contributions and distributions, but there are intervening years in which the annual eligibility determination was not made or documented. Regulatory guidance will be needed on whether there is a deemed termination of the ABLE account in the first year in which eligibility is not determined, or a less draconian result.

f. Qualified Disability Expenses

As with Section 529 accounts, earnings in an ABLE account build up on a federally tax-free basis, and distributed earnings remain tax-free to the extent they do not exceed the beneficiary’s qualified expenses in the applicable tax year. For an ABLE account, “qualified disability expenses” is defined broadly as “any expenses related to the eligible individual’s blindness or disability which are made for the benefit of an eligible individual” and includes expenses for education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, oversight and monitoring, funeral and burial and other expenses approved by the Treasury Secretary.

The earnings portion of distributions from an ABLE account that exceed an eligible beneficiary’s qualified disability expenses is subject to federal income tax and, unless the distribution follows the beneficiary’s death, a 10% additional tax.

g.  Investment Direction

The ABLE legislation permits an account beneficiary to direct the investment of contributions to the account twice a year.  (The ABLE legislation also amends Section 529 to permit such twice a year investment direction for Section 529 college savings accounts.) Assuming that the IRS interprets the ABLE statute in a manner similar to its interpretation of the investment direction provisions in Section 529, ABLE account beneficiaries will be able to redirect existing account balances among the ABLE program’s investment options twice per year, and will be able to direct the investment of any new contributions at the time the applicable contribution is made. Again, because the ABLE beneficiary may be a minor or have a disability that precludes investment decisions, a person with power of attorney to make such investment decisions on the beneficiary’s behalf may be required.

h. Effect on Eligibility for Means-Tested Programs

Aside from availability of funds for savings purposes, a frequent impediment to saving for a dedicated purpose such as higher education expenses or disability expenses is the perception that such savings may reduce the amount of available funding from other sources, such as financial aid in the case of college savings accounts and federal or state disability assistance in the case of disability savings accounts. The ABLE legislation addresses this issue by generally excluding ABLE account balances and distributions from being counted for purposes of means-tested federal programs.

There are two exceptions relating to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program: distributions from an ABLE account for housing expenses are not excluded, and the excess of an ABLE account balance over $100,000 is counted and may result in the suspension of SSI benefits during any period in which such excess amount remains in the ABLE account. Even if SSI benefits are suspended due to an ABLE account balance in excess of $100,000, the beneficiary’s Medicaid eligibility is not impacted by such suspension.

i. State Reimbursement Claim upon Beneficiary’s Death

Upon the death of an ABLE account beneficiary, a state that has paid for the beneficiary’s medical costs incurred after the account was established may claim reimbursement from any balance in the ABLE account for such payments, net of any premiums paid on the beneficiary’s behalf to a Medicaid Buy-In program. The 10% income tax surcharge is inapplicable to any such distribution to a state.

j. ABLE Program Verification and Reporting Requirements

Under Section 529A, a state establishing an ABLE program is not required to verify the eligibility of a beneficiary for whom an ABLE account is opened; that appears to be between the beneficiary and the IRS, subject to any regulations that may be promulgated by the Treasury Secretary. Similarly, as is the case with Section 529 programs, an ABLE program is not required to determine whether distributions are qualified for tax-exemption or taxable. However, an ABLE program must report to the Treasury Secretary, at the time an ABLE account is established, the name and state of residence of the beneficiary, and must report on a monthly basis to the Commissioner of Social Security distributions from and account balances for each ABLE account.

Section 529A permits the Treasury Secretary to adopt regulations “providing for the information to be presented to open an ABLE account”, among other topics. The Treasury Secretary may also require the state sponsor of an ABLE program to report to the Treasury Secretary and account beneficiaries “with respect to contributions, distributions, the return of excess contributions, and such other matters as the Secretary may require.”

II. Getting ABLE Programs Off the Ground

a. State ABLE Legislation

The enactment of Section 529A will authorize the establishment of ABLE programs effective January 1, 2015, but ABLE accounts will not be available to families anxious to take advantage of tax-exempt savings for disabled beneficiaries until the beneficiary’s state of residence launches an ABLE program or enters into a contract with another state permitting its residents to use an ABLE program launched by the other state. A state is likely to require legislation authorizing a particular state agency or instrumentality to establish and administer an ABLE program, and it is also likely that legislative authorization would be required for a state to contract with another state for resident access to the other state’s ABLE program. Some states have already passed ABLE legislation in anticipation of the enactment of the federal tax benefit, but many states still need to do so before their residents can access the new tax benefit.

States that have not yet enacted ABLE legislation will need to determine whether the authority to launch and operate the state’s ABLE program should be granted to the state agency or instrumentality responsible for the state’s 529 college savings program, or to a different entity. Given the similarities between Section 529A and Section 529, there appear to be obvious efficiencies in consolidated administration of such programs. On the other hand, disability advocates may prefer administration of ABLE programs by state officials or boards with expertise in disability matters, even though the duties of ABLE program administrators are primarily investment-oriented.  Some states may elect to provide their Section 529 and Section 529A programs under the same roof, but include individuals with disability expertise on the applicable board or advisory council.

b. Program Managers and Investment Options

The consensus around the desirability of ABLE programs suggests the existence of substantial pent-up demand for investing in such programs. However, the current $14,000 per year contribution limit, and an ABLE program’s inability, with the limited exception of the “contracting state” provision, to attract out of state residents, are likely to result in a much longer ramp-up period for ABLE programs than for the more successful 529 programs, and smaller amounts of assets under management. States establishing ABLE programs will need to evaluate the pros and cons of lumping their 529 and 529A programs together for purposes of program management contracts and other potential administrative cost efficiencies inherent in combining the two asset pools operationally, while segregating them for legal and tax purposes.

Similarly, states establishing ABLE programs and their investment managers will need to consider the efficiency of offering similar investment options and underlying investments in their ABLE programs and college savings programs. One obvious adjustment that will need to be made is in age-based options, the most popular options under 529 programs, in which investments follow an increasingly conservative investment glide path as the account beneficiary approaches presumed college age. Age-based options may also be useful in ABLE programs, but considerable financial tinkering will be required to make them appropriate for expenditures over a disabled beneficiary’s lifetime versus the much narrower higher education window. The fact that many ABLE accounts are likely to be fiduciary or custodial accounts rather than accounts in which the account owner owes no fiduciary duty to the account beneficiary may also influence the investment line-up offered by ABLE programs.