When an employee passes away, employers often face challenging questions regarding benefits and compensation. A common question that arises is whether an employer can pay a deceased employee’s unused Health Reimbursement Arrangement (HRA) balance to the surviving spouse. This article delves into the regulations and best practices surrounding HRAs in such scenarios, ensuring compliance and clarity.

HRAs and Their Restrictions

Health Reimbursement Arrangements (HRAs) are designed to reimburse employees for qualifying medical expenses, as outlined in Code § 213(d). Importantly, HRAs are not allowed to disburse cash payments to employees or their beneficiaries at any time, including after the employee’s death. Any attempt to convert HRA balances into cash would disqualify the HRA for all participants, rendering all reimbursed amounts taxable—even those for legitimate medical expenses.

The Concept of Post-Death Spend-Downs

While direct cash payments are prohibited, HRAs can include a provision known as a post-death “spend-down.” This feature allows the remaining HRA balance to be used to cover qualifying medical expenses for the deceased employee’s surviving spouse, tax dependents, and qualifying children. Employers should check their HRA plan documents to see if this feature is included and, if not, consider amending the plan to incorporate it.

Compliance and Nondiscrimination Rules

Amending an HRA plan to include a post-death spend-down feature must comply with several nondiscrimination rules. These rules ensure that benefits are not skewed in favor of highly compensated individuals. Specifically, all benefits provided to highly compensated participants must also be made available to all other participants.

Additionally, IRS Notice 2015-87 casts some uncertainty on whether family members without major medical coverage can utilize a post-death spend-down feature. Until further clarification from the IRS, a cautious approach would be to limit these reimbursements to family members who also have major medical coverage.

Administering Post-Death Spend-Downs

Proper administration of the post-death spend-down feature is crucial. Only qualifying medical expenses for eligible individuals should be reimbursed. Failure to adhere to this can result in all HRA reimbursements becoming taxable, not just those for ineligible expenses. Employers must also remember their obligations under COBRA. If a deceased employee’s death triggers a COBRA qualifying event, then qualified beneficiaries must be given the opportunity to continue their HRA coverage for the duration prescribed by COBRA, regardless of the presence of a post-death spend-down feature.


While it may seem compassionate to pay out a deceased employee’s unused HRA balance to their surviving spouse, doing so would jeopardize the tax-advantaged status of the HRA for all participants. Instead, employers should explore the option of a post-death spend-down feature, ensuring they comply with all relevant nondiscrimination rules and administrative guidelines. By carefully navigating these regulations, employers can support their employees’ families while maintaining the integrity of their HRA plans.

Source: Thomson Reuters

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