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How do I? Avoid pitfalls within a flexible spending account?

Under a flexible spending arrangement (FSA), an amount is credited to an account that is used to reimburse an employee, generally, for health care or dependent care expenses. The employer must maintain the FSA. Amounts may be contributed to the account under an employee salary reduction agreement or through employer contributions.

Use-it or lose-it

The general rule is that no contribution or benefit from an FSA may be carried over to a subsequent plan year. Unused benefits or contributions remaining at the end of the plan year (or at the end of a grace period) are forfeited. This is known as the "use it or lose it" rule. The plan cannot pay the unused benefits back to the employee, and cannot carry over the unused benefits to the following calendar year.

Example. An employer maintains a cafeteria plan with a health FSA. The plan does not have a grace period. Arthur, an employee, contributes $250 a month to the FSA, or a total of $3,000 for the calendar year. At the end of the year (December 31), Arthur has incurred medical expenses of only $1,200 and makes claims for those expenses. He has $1,800 of unused benefits. Under the "use it or lose it" rule, Arthur forfeits the $1,800. 

Grace period

Because the "use it or lose it" rule seemed harsh, the IRS gave employers the option to provide a grace period at the end of the calendar year. The grace period may extend for two and a half months, but must not extend beyond the 15th day of the third month following the end of the plan year. Medical expenses incurred during the grace period may be reimbursed using contributions from the previous year.

Example. Beulah contributes $3,000 to her health FSA for 2010. The FSA is on January 1 through December 31 calendar year. On December 31, 2010, Beulah has $1,800 of unused contributions. Her employer provides a grace period through March 15, 2011. On January 20, 2011, Beulah incurs $1,500 of additional medical expenses. Because these expenses were incurred during the grace period, Beulah can be reimbursed the $1,500 from her 2010 contributions. On March 15, 2011, she has $300 of unused benefits from 2010 and forfeits this amount.


There are other exceptions to the prohibition against deferred compensation within the operation of an FSA. A cafeteria plan is permitted, but not required, to reimburse employees for orthodontia services before the services are provided, even if the services will be provided over a period of two years or longer. The employee must be required to pay in advance to receive the services. 

Another exception is provided for durable medical equipment that has a useful life extending beyond the health FSA's period of coverage (the calendar year, plus any grace period). For example, a health FSA is permitted to reimburse the cost of a wheelchair for an employee.

If you have any questions on setting up an FSA, whether as an employer or an employee, and which benefits must be covered and which are optional, please do not hesitate to call this office.