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permits anyone to establish a Section 529 account (subject to the imposition of taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s higher education expenses), Section 529A imposes restrictions on the front end designed to ensure that the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 (Section 529A likewise imposes taxes and tax penalties on amounts withdrawn for purposes other than the account beneficiary’s qualified disability expenses.)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.