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Guide to Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Accounts

By Rebecca Lake · July 12, 2022 · 10 minute read

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Guide to Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Accounts

An ABLE account — short for Achieving a Better Life Experience — is a tax-advantaged savings vehicle that’s designed for eligible people with disabilities. Designated beneficiaries can use an ABLE savings account to set aside money to pay for qualified disability-related expenses.

An ABLE savings account can offer substantial tax benefits for qualified individuals, as contributions grow tax deferred and qualified withdrawals are also tax free. Also referred to as a 529 A account (owing to its similarity to a 529 college savings plan), the ABLE account is designed to make saving and investing more advantageous for people with disabilities and their families.

What Is an ABLE Account?

An ABLE account is a tax-advantaged savings account for people with disabilities and their families. ABLE savings accounts allow people to pay for qualified disability expenses (QDEs) without impacting their ability to qualify for Medicaid or other government assistance programs.

The Achieving a Better Life Experience Act became law in December 2014. The intention behind the ABLE Act and the creation of ABLE accounts was to ease financial stress associated with paying for many of the QDEs associated with different disabilities. Qualified expenses include: housing, education, assistive technologies, specially equipped vehicles, and even food.

Under the ABLE Act, states have the authority to establish an ABLE disability account program. As of June 2022, all 50 states offer at least one ABLE savings account program, according to the ABLE National Resource Center. However, plans are currently inactive in Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

How Do ABLE Accounts Work?

An ABLE account is a type of tax-deferred savings account similar to a 529 college savings plan. These accounts work by allowing designated beneficiaries to contribute money, up to prescribed limits.

The money can come from various sources, including individual or corporate contributions, or a trust. The money in an ABLE savings account does not affect your eligibility for other government benefits.

Also like a 529 plan, the money grows on a tax-deferred basis and can be withdrawn tax free when it’s used to pay for qualified disability expenses. Broadly speaking, QDEs are any expenses a person with disability pays in order to maintain their health, independence, and quality of life.

However, withdrawals from an ABLE savings account for non-qualified expenses can result in those distributions being subject to tax. Using money in an ABLE disability account for non-qualified expenses could also affect eligibility for government assistance.

Benefits of an ABLE Account

Generally speaking, ABLE savings accounts are designed to make paying for certain expenses easier for people with disabilities. Here are some of the main advantages of opening an ABLE savings account.

Tax-Deferred Growth and Tax-Free Withdrawals

One of the main draws of ABLE accounts is their tax-advantaged status. The money that goes into an ABLE account can be invested and allowed to grow on a tax-deferred basis. As long as distributions are used to pay for QDEs, withdrawals are always 100% tax-free.

ABLE accounts have an edge over savings accounts, since designated beneficiaries can invest their money in the market. That means they have an opportunity to grow their savings through the power of compound interest.

Flexibility

The ABLE account allows for flexibility, since the money can be used to pay for a wide range of disability-related costs. With a traditional 529 plan, savers are limited to using funds to pay for education-related expenses. The ABLE savings account allows designated beneficiaries (i.e. the disabled individual or family member) to use the money for the categories noted above — housing, transportation, technology, food, etc. — as well as employment training, health and wellness costs, legal and administrative fees, and more.

Friends, family members, and others can contribute to ABLE accounts on behalf of the designated beneficiary, up to the annual limit. For 2022, the annual contribution limit, including rollovers from 529 plans, is $16,000.

And beneficiaries don’t have to worry about those contributions affecting their ability to qualify for Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or other forms of government aid, assuming they’re within certain limits. To learn more about who can make qualified contributions, check the ABLE website, or consult the ABLE program in your state.

Financial Autonomy

ABLE accounts afford designated beneficiaries with a measure of financial independence, since they can set up an ABLE account themselves and make contributions on their own behalf. Individuals can also manage the account, and decide how to invest their savings and when to take qualified distributions for eligible expenses.

An ABLE account can give a person with disabilities more control than something like a special needs trust, a type of trust fund. In a special needs trust, the trust grantor sets aside assets for a disabled beneficiary but that beneficiary doesn’t have a say in how the money can be used.

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Drawbacks of an ABLE Account

While ABLE accounts have some positives, they’re not necessarily right for everyone who has a disability. Here are some of the potential drawbacks to consider when deciding whether to open an ABLE account.

Non-Deductible Contributions

Contributions to an ABLE savings account do not offer a tax break in the form of a deduction. (This is also true of some state 529 plans.) So even if you fully fund an ABLE account up to the annual limit each year, you can’t write those contributions off on your taxes.

Age Restrictions

An ABLE account can only be established for someone who has a blindness or disability that began before age 26. So someone who becomes disabled at age 27 or later would not be able to open an ABLE disability account.

The age requirement puts this type of special needs savings account out of reach for some individuals, though they could still be named the beneficiary of a special needs trust.

Means Testing

Money held in an ABLE account is subject to means testing for the purposes of qualifying for Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The first $100,000 in ABLE account assets is disregarded for SSI but going over that limit can result in a suspension of your benefit payments.

The $100,000 account balance threshold doesn’t affect Medicaid eligibility. But if a designated beneficiary passes away with money remaining in their ABLE account, the state can lay claim to those assets in order to recoup any Medicaid benefits that were received.

Opening an ABLE Account

People with disabilities can open an ABLE account in any state, as long as that state’s plan is open for enrollment. The ABLE National Resource Center maintains a map with details for each state’s program, including whether out-of-state residents are accepted.

Once you find an eligible program, you can open an ABLE account online. There’s some basic information you’ll need to provide, including:

•   Your name

•   Date of birth

•   Social Security number

•   Bank account number

Parents can open an ABLE account on behalf of a minor child with disabilities. You also have to meet the definition of a designated beneficiary. In New York, for example, you must be able to show that one of the following is true:

•   You’ve been classified as blind as defined in the Social Security Act

•   You’re entitled to SSI or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) due to a disability

•   You have a disability that’s included on the Social Security Administration’s List of Compassionate Allowances Conditions

•   You have a written diagnosis from a licensed physician documenting a physical or mental impairment which severely limits function, and is expected to last at least one year, or can cause death

Similar to opening a bank account, there may also be a low minimum deposit requirement to open an ABLE account.

Requirements of an ABLE Account

There are certain requirements that must be met in order to open an ABLE account. Generally, you’re eligible for one of these accounts if you:

•   Become eligible for Supplemental Security Income based on disability or blindness that began before age 26; or

•   Are entitled to disability insurance benefits, childhood disability benefits, or disabled widow’s or widower’s benefits based on a disability or blindness that began before age 26; or

•   Certify that you have a medical impairment resulting in blindness or disability that began before age 26.

Again, age and disability status are the most important requirements for ABLE savings accounts. You can open an ABLE account in your home state or in another state, if that state’s program allows non-residents to enroll. It’s important to note, however, that you can only have one ABLE account in your name.

How Much Can You Contribute to an ABLE Account?

The annual contribution limit is pegged to the gift tax exclusion limit each year, which is $16,000 for 2022. Eligible designated beneficiaries can, however, contribute additional money if they’re employed and have earned income for the year.

The IRS limits those contributions to an amount up to the lesser of:

•   The designated beneficiary’s compensation for the year, OR

•   The poverty line amount for a one-person household as established by the Community Services Block Grant Act

For 2022, the allowable amount for persons with disabilities in the continental United States is $12,880. The limit for residents of Alaska is $16,090 while the limit for Hawaii residents is $14,820.

Funds from a 529 college savings account can be rolled into an ABLE account. Any rollovers count toward the annual contribution limit. So if $6,000 have been contributed to the plan for the year already, in theory you could rollover up to $11,000 into an ABLE account from a 529 savings account for 2022.

How Can You Use ABLE Money?

As discussed earlier, money in an ABLE savings account can be used to pay for qualified disability expenses. That means expenses that are paid by or for the designated beneficiary and are related to their disability.

Examples of things you can use ABLE money for include:

•   Education

•   Housing expenses

•   Food

•   Transportation

•   Employment and career training and support

•   Assistance technology and related services

•   Health care

•   Prevention and wellness

•   Financial management and administrative services

•   Legal expenses

•   Funeral and burial expenses

•   Day-to-day living expenses

The IRS can perform audits to ensure that ABLE account funds are only being used for qualified disability expenses. So designated beneficiaries may want to keep a detailed record of withdrawal and how those funds are used, including copies of receipts.

ABLE Accounts vs Special Needs Trusts

A special needs trust (SNT) is another option for setting aside money for disability expenses. In a special needs trust, the beneficiary does not own any of the trust assets but the money in the trust can be used on their behalf. A trustee manages trust assets according to the direction of the trust grantor.

Here’s how ABLE accounts and special needs trusts compare at a glance. You may benefit from consulting a tax professional to understand when and how income from an SNT may be taxed.

ABLE Account

Special Needs Trust

Tax Treatment Growth is tax-deferred and qualified withdrawals are tax-free; there is no tax deduction for contributions. Income generated by the trust (i.e. withdrawals) is generally taxable to the beneficiary during their lifetime.
Control Designated beneficiaries can control how assets in their account are managed. The trustee manages the trust on behalf of the beneficiary, according to the wishes of the grantor.
Contribution Limits Contribution limits correspond to annual gift tax exclusion limits. No limit on contributions, though the gift tax may apply to contributions over the exclusion limit.
Medicaid/SSI Impact Up to the first $100,000 in assets is not counted for SSI purposes; balances are not counted for Medicaid eligibility. Assets are not counted toward Medicaid or SSI eligibility.
Use of Funds Funds can be withdrawn tax-free to pay for qualified disability expenses. Funds can be withdrawn for any purpose, though they’re typically used for disability expenses. The beneficiary may owe taxes.
Age Requirement Disability must have occured before age 26. Beneficiaries must be under age 65 when the trust is created.

Alternatives to ABLE Accounts

If you don’t qualify for an ABLE account or you’re looking for ways to save on behalf of a disabled child or dependent, there are other accounts you might consider. Here are some options to weigh when looking for alternatives to ABLE accounts.

Special Needs Trust

As mentioned, an SNT can also be used to pay for disability-related expenses. Establishing a trust can be a little more involved than opening an ABLE account, since you’ll need to create the trust on paper, name a trustee, and fund it with assets. But doing so could make sense if you care for a disabled child or dependent and you want to ensure that they’ll be taken care of should something happen to you.

529 College Savings Account

A 529 college savings account is designed to help parents and other individuals save money for education while enjoying some tax benefits. Contributions can be made on behalf of a beneficiary with disabilities. That money can grow tax-deferred, then be withdrawn tax-free to pay for qualified education expenses.

You might open a 529 college savings account for yourself or your child to help them pay for school without incurring student debt.

Bank Accounts

Opening one or more bank accounts is another way to set aside money to pay for disability expenses. Bank accounts won’t yield any tax breaks but they can allow for convenience and accessibility.

•   In terms of how much money you need to open an account, that depends on the bank. Brick-and-mortar banks might require an opening deposit of anywhere from $5 to $100 while online banks might allow you to open a checking or savings account with as little as $1.

•   Can you open a bank account without ID? No. You’ll need to verify your name and address, typically with a government-issued ID, like a driver’s license.

•   So how long does it take to open a bank account? Not long, if you’re doing it online. Typically, when you have your basic forms of ID ready, the time it takes to open an online account is minimal.

•   When can you create a bank account online? The simple answer is when you’re old enough to do so. Keep in mind that the legal age to open a bank account in your name is typically 18 so if you’re underage, you may need your parents to open the account for you.

•   Online banks and traditional banks can offer a variety of account options. Student checking and savings accounts, for example, are designed for younger teens. Older teens who are headed off to university might be interested in opening a bank account for college students.

Banks can also offer certificate of deposit (CD) accounts and money market accounts.

If you’re wondering whether you can open a bank account no ID needed, the answer is no. You’ll need some form of personal identification, such as a government-issued ID, in order to open a bank account online or at a brick-and-mortar bank.

The Takeaway

An ABLE account can make it easier for someone with disabilities to meet their needs while maintaining control over their finances. With an ABLE account, the money that’s contributed grows tax free, and can be withdrawn tax free to pay for qualified expenses relating to the care of a disabled person. For 2022, the annual contribution limit is $16,000, and the money saved doesn’t impact eligibility for government programs like Medicaid.

Another benefit: Those qualified expenses aren’t limited to health care, say, the way 529 plans are limited to education. The range of expenses include housing, food, transportation, employment — as well as health and wellness and preventive care. The idea of an ABLE account is to help families afford all the things a disabled person might need.

In addition, you may want to consider other options, such as online bank accounts, for growing your savings.

For instance, it’s possible to open a bank account with SoFi right from your laptop or mobile device. You can enjoy the convenience of having an all-in-one Checking and Savings that earns a very competitive interest rate of 1.80% APY when you set up direct deposit. In addition, there are no monthly fees. Plus, you can get paid up to two days early when you enroll in direct deposit.

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FAQ

What is considered an ABLE account?

An ABLE account is a tax-advantaged account that’s administered through a state program for the purposes of helping persons with disabilities to save and invest money. An ABLE account’s tax status sets it apart from bank accounts, college savings accounts, or Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs). You can sign up with your state program.

Should you have both an ABLE account and a special needs trust?

It’s possible. An ABLE account can be managed by its designated beneficiary, allowing them control over their finances. Special needs trusts are managed by a trustee on behalf of the beneficiary, meaning they cannot direct how the money is spent. Having both an ABLE account and a special needs trust can help to ensure that someone with disabilities is taken care of financially while allowing them a measure of independence.

Is a Roth IRA an ABLE account?

No. A Roth IRA is a tax-advantaged account that’s used for retirement savings. Roth IRAs are funded with after-tax dollars and qualified distributions are tax-free. They’re not limited to persons with disabilities while an ABLE account is designed to be used specifically for qualified disability expenses.


Photo credit: iStock/FG Trade

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SoFi members with direct deposit can earn up to 1.80% annual percentage yield (APY) interest on all account balances in their Checking and Savings accounts (including Vaults). Members without direct deposit will earn 1.00% APY on all account balances in Checking and Savings (including Vaults). Interest rates are variable and subject to change at any time. Rate of 1.80% APY is current as of 07/26/2022. Additional information can be found at http://www.sofi.com/legal/banking-rate-sheet
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