FSA Rollover vs. Grace Period: Which Is Better?

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An FSA rollover allows you to carry over up to $500 of unused dollars to the next plan year, while an FSA grace period gives employees an extra 2½ to use the previous year’s dollars.

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A Flexible Spending Account (FSA) offers employees the chance to save for medical expenses pre-tax. The arrangement can save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars per year. Be warned, you must use your FSA funds by the end of each plan year.

That is, unless your plan has an FSA rollover or grace period. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) allows employers to opt-in to one of these options. Both options can help their workers who have an end-of-year balance.

It's important to understand what happens to your funds at the end of the plan year. You don't want to leave money on the table!

The Different Types of Flexible Spending Accounts

There are three different types of FSA plans you can get. These plans are only available through employers that offer them. In each case, your contributions occur on a tax-free basis. This means you’ll save tax money when you file your return.

Here's a look at each different type of FSA:

  • Healthcare FSA: You can use funds for eligible medical expenses, including dental and vision. Eligible people include you, your spouse and any dependents you claim on your tax return. A healthcare FSA can offer a rollover or a grace period.
  • Dependent Care FSA: Participants can use money from this account to pay for dependent care of a child or adult. It's intended for individuals who need dependent care so they can work. Dependent Care FSAs don’t offer a rollover option, but may offer a grace period or run-out period.
  • Limited-Purpose FSA: This FSA only includes qualifying dental and vision expenses. Limited-purpose FSAs can come with a rollover or a grace period.

The FSA contribution limit for healthcare FSAs and limited-purpose FSAs is $2,750 in 2021. With a Dependent Care FSA, you can set aside up to $5,000 if you’re married filing jointly or $2,500 per account if each spouse has one.

Healthcare and limited purpose FSAs are not like HSAs - you do not have to have a qualified high-deductible health plan to use them.

As such, they’re perfect if your health insurance plan doesn’t qualify for an HSA.

FSA Rollover vs. Grace Period: How Do They Work?

The default setting for FSAs is the Use It or Lose It rule. This means you give up any FSA funds you don’t spend by the end of the plan year. This is in stark contrast to HSAs. With an HSA you don't have to use your contributions within a certain timeframe.

Beginning in the 2014 plan year, the IRS added a couple of options for employers. These options help limit that loss for workers with funds left over in a healthcare FSA or limited-purpose FSA.

Employers that offer these FSAs can choose to offer a rollover, grace period or nothing at all. The only catch is that they can’t offer more than one option. If your employer doesn’t offer either option, it may choose to offer a run-out period instead.

FSA Rollover

With an FSA rollover, participants can carry over up to $500 of their unused funds to the following plan year.

Let's take this real life example:

You have a $600 balance at the end of the year. Next year, can start the year off with $500 plus that year's contribution limit. While you did have more money in your FSA left over, you're only allowed to take $500 over into the next year.

If you have less than $500 remaining in your account, you can roll over the full FSA balance. What’s more, you can still contribute the maximum amount in the following year.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, employers may choose to allow workers to roll over up to $550 of 2020 funds to the 2021 plan year.

Grace Period

With the grace period option, employees can get an extra 2.5 months (March 15) to use the previous year’s FSA funds. As long as the service occurs within that grace period, it qualifies.

There’s no limit on how much you can use during an FSA grace period. This means it can be more beneficial if you have more than $500 in remaining funds.

NOTE: The IRS has offered some additional benefits to accommodate for the coronavirus pandemic. Employers can choose to extend the grace period for 2019 FSA funds through the end of 2020 if the plan follows the calendar year. If they follow a split-year schedule, they can extend through June 30, 2021.

Run-Out Period

A run-out period is a period of time during your new plan year in which you can still file claims for expenses made in the previous year.

Let's say your run-out period lasts until March 31. You will have until then to file a claim for FSA funds for any eligible expense made by December 31 of the previous year. This can be helpful because there’s often a delay between your service or procedure and when you get your bill.

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Which Is Better: A Rollover or a Grace Period?

As an employee, you don't get to choose which FSA extension option you get. Your employer gets to choose — and remember, they may choose not to offer either.

Depending on the situation, you may have some influence in the decision-making process for future FSA plan years. So it’s a good idea to understand both options and their benefits and drawbacks. Discuss options with your employer so future employees can receive these benefits.

FSA Rollover Pros and Cons

The biggest benefit to an FSA rollover is that you’ll have the entire upcoming plan year to use the funds from the previous year. This setup is helpful if you don’t have any medical services or procedures scheduled at the beginning of the following year.

The downside is that you can only roll over up to a maximum of $500. Of you have more than that in unused funds, you’ll still be leaving some money on the table, even if not the full amount.

FSA Grace Period Pros and Cons

The grace period option doesn’t limit how much of the previous plan year’s unused funds you can use. As long as you incur the expense within the first 2.5 months of the following plan year, you can get reimbursed.

That said, the amount of time you have to use your FSA funds is much shorter than with the rollover alternative. If you aren’t proactive about using it all at the beginning of the year, you may still lose some of it.

Other Tips for Using Your FSA Money

Make it a goal to use your entire FSA balance by the deadline. Here are a few options to consider:

  • Know what qualifies: The IRS provides a list of eligible medical expenses and qualified dependent care expenses. Read through the list to find out if you’ve incurred expenses that you didn’t know were eligible. Remember that if you have a limited-purpose FSA, your options are limited in comparison to a healthcare FSA.
  • Visit the FSA Store: The FSA Store only offers qualified products for your healthcare FSA. You can shop by category and search for products you could use to improve or maintain your health. You can also shop for FSA-eligible items on Amazon.com.

One thing to avoid is prepaying for medical care that will not happen during the plan year or grace period. An expense isn’t considered incurred unless the actual service occurs during the account’s plan year. If you try to use your FSA funds to pay for care in advance, it may not be eligible for reimbursement.

The Bottom Line

The FSA rollover and grace period offer relief to account holders at the end of the year. If you have an FSA, your employer gets to choose which one to offer, and it may not give you either option.

Speak with your HR representative to find out what your employer offers. Regardless of which option they chose, it’s important to be mindful of your account balance. It’s also important to have a plan to use all the money before the deadline. You’ll be able to maximize the value your FSA offers without the stress of trying to catch up the following year.

If you do have unused FSA money at the end of the year, consider adjusting your contributions. This way, you may be able to avoid having a surplus of funds in the upcoming year.

Disclaimer: the content presented in this article are for informational purposes only, and is not, and must not be considered tax, investment, legal, accounting or financial planning advice, nor a recommendation as to a specific course of action. Investors should consult all available information, including fund prospectuses, and consult with appropriate tax, investment, accounting, legal, and accounting professionals, as appropriate, before making any investment or utilizing any financial planning strategy.

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