Retirement & Financial Planning Report

Dependent care FSAs allow participants to be reimbursed on a pre-tax basis for either child care or adult dependent care. Image: Jack_the_sparow/

While much of the attention on the flexible spending account program for federal employees focuses on using such accounts for child care purposes, employees more advanced in their careers should remember that one of the two types of account is a “dependent care” account, not a “child care” account.

The distinction could make a difference to those whose children are no longer in child care but who have elderly parents who may need assistance through adult day care-type arrangements. To them, a dependent care account might be equally useful as to an employee with a young child, since those accounts allow up to $5,000 to be set aside pre-tax each year for dependent care purposes.

Dependent care FSAs allow participants to be reimbursed on a pre-tax basis for either child care or adult dependent care expenses that are necessary to allow you or your spouse to work. Several IRS rules governing such accounts bear closer watching in the adult care setting than in the child care setting, though.

First, the FSA enrollee must be able to claim the person as a dependent on his or her income tax return. While that usually isn’t an issue with children, it might be with an adult dependent. Essentially, an adult may qualify as a dependent for tax purposes if the employee is providing more than half of that person’s maintenance for the year.

That includes not only older relatives such as parents and grandparents, officials note, but also disabled children–who are too old to qualify for reimbursement of child care expenses, which otherwise cuts off at age 13—and even disabled spouses who are mentally or physically incapable of caring for themselves.

Remember, though, that once you retire, you can no longer have an FSA account. Money in a dependent care account typically is put in and paid out on a pay-as-you-go basis, so there’s generally no risk of losing money that had been put in such an account.

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