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Here’s how a health savings account works. Spoiler: It can be a stealth retirement fund

A nurse takes a pulse reading on an arm with tattoos
Health savings accounts offer a rare triple tax break and can be rolled over from year to year, allowing the balance to grow and be invested.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)
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Dear Liz: For the first time, I signed up for a high-deductible insurance plan along with a health savings account. However, I don’t quite understand a couple of key concepts. When our medical bills roll in, will we pay using our personal credit card or the HSA card provided by my employer? We have no trouble using our personal card but is that the right way to use an HSA — by not using it, in effect? Also, I read that the unused HSA funds can be invested to grow tax-deferred. How does the money get invested? Does my employer have a relationship with a specific broker? Or can I invest unused HSA funds with any broker?

Answer: If you want your HSA balance to grow for retirement, then paying your medical bills out of pocket is the way to go. If you use your credit card to pay medical bills, however, make sure you can pay off the balances in full. The benefits of an HSA would be diluted if you were paying double-digit interest rates.

If you do need to access your HSA funds, you can use your employer-provided card to pay medical bills or submit receipts to the HSA administrator for reimbursement.

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As you probably know, HSAs offer a rare triple tax break. Contributions are pre-tax, your account can grow tax-deferred and withdrawals for qualifying medical expenses are tax-free. Because the account can be invested and balances rolled over from year to year, many people treat their HSAs as an additional way to save for retirement.

Your employer has chosen an HSA provider that typically will offer some investment options, but usually you can transfer your balances to a different provider if you wish. Compare fees, minimum balance requirements and investment options. If you decide to move your account, ask your current provider to set up a “trustee-to-trustee” transfer.

Health savings accounts can be tapped by a surviving spouse. For other beneficiaries, the tax benefits go away.

Nov. 12, 2023

Transferring bonds after a spouse dies

Dear Liz: In 2001 I bought $50,000 worth of I Bonds. Half of them were in my name with my wife as beneficiary; the other half were in her name with me as beneficiary. She died two years ago but I do not want to cash her bonds in. How do I get them in my name without selling and repurchasing?

Answer: You can have the bonds reissued in your name alone because you were named as the beneficiary. The reissued bonds will be in electronic form, so if you haven’t already, you’ll need to create an account with TreasuryDirect, which is operated by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. If you have questions, you can reach the site’s call center at (844) 284-2676 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Eastern time Monday through Friday.

Explaining required minimum distributions

Dear Liz: When my wife reached age 59?, we initiated required minimum distributions for all of her retirement funds. During the process, the investment company representative stated that as long as she was still working and contributing to her 401(k) and 403(b) at work, she was not required to take RMDs for those accounts. With all the changes lately in those types of accounts, is that still the case, or has the law changed?

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The 8% annual growth is difficult get elsewhere, so planners often urge clients to tap other money first when they retire.

July 8, 2021

Answer: Minimum distributions have never been required at age 59? from any retirement fund. That’s the age at which people no longer have to pay penalties for accessing their retirement funds, not the age at which they must start taking money out.

The current age at which retired minimum distributions must begin is 73, and it rises to 75 for people born in 1960 and later. If your wife is still working at that point, she can put off RMDs from the retirement plans sponsored by her current employer. RMDs will still be required on other retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s or 403(b)s from a previous employer. The other RMD exception is for Roth accounts, which don’t have RMDs for the account owner.

Generally you want money to stay in tax-deferred retirement accounts as long as possible. Unnecessary distributions just increase your tax bill and can reduce the amount you have to live on later in life.

If your wife has already taken a distribution, she has 60 days to roll it over into an IRA and avoid taxation.

Tax law can be confusing and mistakes can be expensive. Please use this experience as a reason to hire a good tax pro who can answer your questions and ensure you don’t make another potentially expensive misstep.

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Liz Weston, Certified Financial Planner, is a personal finance columnist for NerdWallet. Questions may be sent to her at 3940 Laurel Canyon, No. 238, Studio City, CA 91604, or by using the “Contact” form at asklizweston.com.

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