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Investor Bulletin: An Introduction to ABLE Accounts

Aug. 8, 2017

The SEC’s Office of Investor Education and Advocacy is issuing this Investor Bulletin to educate investors about ABLE accounts.

An Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account provides a tax-advantaged method to save for disability-related expenses. Contributions are not tax deductible for federal income tax purposes, but your investments can grow tax free and remain so when withdrawn and used for disability-related expenses. Similar to 529 college-savings plans, ABLE programs are administered by the states. Many states have established ABLE programs and you may have the option to choose your own state’s plan.

As with 529 plans, you can typically choose among several investment options with an ABLE account, which often include mutual funds and money market funds. You may also be able to allocate funds to savings or checking options and access account funds via checks or ATMs. It is important to understand your goals and expected uses for the money you have in an ABLE account when making your investment choices.

Are you eligible?

While an individual of any age may hold an ABLE account, the beneficiary of the account–the account holder–must have incurred a qualifying blindness or disability before becoming 26 years old. The beneficiary’s parent, guardian, or an individual with power of attorney for the beneficiary may open the account on the beneficiary’s behalf.

How much can you contribute?

Annual contributions to a single ABLE account are limited to the annual gift tax exclusion (currently $14,000 for 2017). In addition, ABLE accounts are subject to the same aggregate limit that applies to the state’s 529 plan. The account may no longer accept contributions once the account value reaches this aggregate limit. However, if the account value falls below the limit, contributions may resume, subject to the same limit. These aggregate limits vary from state to state.

How should you allocate funds?

You should carefully consider your investment selections. Under current federal law, an account holder is only permitted to change his or her investment selections twice per year. Keep in mind when allocating your investments how soon you will need the funds, as riskier investment options may not have time to recover losses if you need the invested funds sooner rather than later.

For example, if you plan to use the money for current expenses or for a short-term goal, it may be prudent to choose less risky investments. Putting your money in a checking or savings option guarantees it’s all there for your current expenses or short-term goals.

On the other hand, if you are planning to save for a longer term, you may want to consider investment products that may provide higher returns in the long run than, for example, a basic savings option. However, with the possibility of higher returns comes the exposure to higher risks and the possibility of losing money. As you get closer to your investment goal, you may want to change your asset allocation to take on less risk.

What fees and expenses will you pay?

It is important to understand the fees and expenses associated with an ABLE account because they may lower your investment returns. ABLE programs may charge account maintenance and service fees. Some state plans will waive or reduce some of these fees if you maintain a specified account balance, choose electronic delivery of statements, or reside in the state sponsoring the ABLE account.

You may also be charged asset management fees. Each investment option will typically bear a portfolio-weighted average of the fees and expenses of the mutual funds and other investments in which it invests. You should carefully review the fees of the underlying investments because they are likely to be different for each investment option.

How does an ABLE account affect federal and state income taxes?

Investing in an ABLE account offers special tax benefits. Earnings in an ABLE account are not subject to federal income tax and, in most cases, state income tax as long as the withdrawals are used for qualified disability expenses.  Qualified disability expenses relate to disability or blindness and seek to maintain or improve the beneficiary’s “health, independence, or quality of life.” Before you invest in an ABLE account, you should read the plan’s offering circular to make sure that you understand and are comfortable with any plan limitations on withdrawals.

However, if you withdraw money from an ABLE account and do not use it on a qualified disability expense, the funds generally will be subject to income tax and an additional 10% federal tax penalty on the earnings portion of your withdrawal.

IRS Guidance.  To learn more about the federal tax implications of an ABLE account, be sure to review IRS Publication 907 – Tax Highlights for Persons With Disabilities.  Per the publication, “[q]ualified disability expenses  include those for education, housing, transportation, employment training and support, assistive technology, personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management, administrative services, legal fees, expenses for oversight and monitoring, and funeral and burial expenses.”

Some states may offer state income tax or other benefits for contributions to an ABLE account. However, these benefits may be limited to contributions to an ABLE account in the plan sponsored by the contributor’s home state. If you receive state income tax benefits for investing in an ABLE account, make sure you review your plan’s offering circular before you complete a transaction. Some transactions may have state income tax consequences.

Does having an ABLE account impact eligibility for other benefits?

Contributions from third parties to an ABLE account, qualified rollovers from other ABLE accounts, withdrawals for qualified disability expenses, and assets in an ABLE account are generally disregarded for the purposes of means-tested federal benefits. However, for the purposes of determining eligibility for Supplemental Security Income, ABLE account balances over $100,000 are included as resources of the individual. Additionally, qualified distributions from ABLE accounts for housing expenses count toward means-testing for federal benefits.

While some states note explicitly that ABLE account assets and income do not affect eligibility for state benefits, you should seek more information from the state on any potential impact. Upon the death of the beneficiary, any state may make a claim against remaining funds in the account for Medicaid benefits received by the beneficiary.

What questions should you ask?

Knowing the answers to these questions may help you decide which ABLE plan is best for you.

  • What fees are charged by the plan? Under what circumstances does the plan waive or reduce certain fees?
  • What is the minimum amount needed to open an account under the plan and what is the minimum for subsequent contributions?
  • What is the aggregate limit on account value?
  • Does the plan offer withdrawal methods such as checks, a debit card, or a recurring prescheduled withdrawal?  What restrictions apply to withdrawals?
  • What types of investment or savings options are offered by the plan? How long are contributions held before being invested or available for withdrawal?
  • Does the plan offer special benefits for state residents? Would I be better off investing in my state’s plan or another plan? Does my state’s plan offer tax advantages or other benefits for investment in the plan it sponsors? If my state’s plan charges higher fees than another state’s plan, do the tax advantages or other benefits offered by my state outweigh the benefit of investing in another state’s less expensive plan?
  • Who is the program manager? When does the program manager’s current management contract expire? How have investment options under the plan performed in the past, knowing that historical results are not indicative of future performance?

Where can you find more information? 

Offering circulars for ABLE plans. You can find out more about a particular plan by reading its offering circular. Often called a disclosure statement, disclosure document, or program description, the offering circular will have detailed information about investment options, tax benefits and consequences, fees and expenses, limitations, risks, and other specific information relating to the ABLE plan. Most ABLE plans post their offering circulars on publicly available websites. The National Disability Institute created The Able National Resource Center, which provides links to most state programs.

Additional information about underlying mutual funds. You may want to find out more about a mutual fund included in an ABLE plan. Additional information about a mutual fund is available in its prospectus, statement of additional information, and semiannual and annual reports. Offering circulars for plans often indicate how you can obtain these documents from the plan manager for no charge.

Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website. Many plans’ program managers are registered investment advisers. You can find more about investment advisers through the Investment Adviser Public Disclosure website. On the website, you can search for the investment adviser and view its Form ADV. Form ADV contains information about an investment adviser and its business operations as well as disclosure about certain disciplinary events involving the adviser and its key personnel. 

Electronic Municipal Market Access. You can search for ABLE plan disclosures on the Municipal Securities Rulemaking Board’s EMMA system.

IRS Guidance. You can learn more about the federal tax implications of ABLE accounts by reviewing the IRS guidance set forth in IRS Publication 907 – Tax Highlights for Persons With Disabilities.

The Office of Investor Education and Advocacy has provided this information as a service to investors.  It is neither a legal interpretation nor a statement of SEC policy.  If you have questions concerning the meaning or application of a particular law or rule, please consult with an attorney who specializes in securities law.

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