ABLE accounts are a way for people with disabilities to save and spend money while protecting their access to public benefits. An ABLE account allows the account owner, their family or friends, or any other person (including trusts) to make contributions. This money can be held tax-free, or spent on eligible expenses.
Eligible expenses for ABLE are referred to as qualified disability expenses (QDEs) and cover a broad range. In some cases, working out whether an expense is a QDE is easy; sometimes it is more difficult. In this guide, we’ll take you through that process.
- ABLE account funds can be applied to qualified disability expenses (QDEs).
- QDEs include education, employment training and support, food, housing, transportation, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, and funeral and burial expenses.
- An expense does not necessarily need to be disability-related if it fits into one of these category, but be sure to keep records of where you spend your ABLE funds.
Understanding Qualified Disability Expenses (QDEs)
The official rules that govern ABLE accounts are in Section 529A(e)(5) of the ABLE Act, 26 U.S. Code 529A(e)(5). The act says that you can use your ABLE account for any qualified disability expense, but does not provide a complete list of what is considered a QDE. Instead, the law provides a list of expenses that would be considered QDEs.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Employment training and support
- Assistive technology and personal support services
- Prevention and wellness
- Financial management and administrative services
- Expenses for ABLE account oversight and monitoring
- Legal fees
- Funeral and burial
- Other expenses approved through the U.S. Treasury Department/IRS regulations (proposed regulations from 2015 add “basic living expenses” to this list)
“There is no complete list of QDEs, but the category is very broad, including any expense paid for the benefit of the eligible beneficiary,” says Juliana Crist, senior consultant at AKF Consulting, an advisor to state-run municipal plans. That’s because the law doesn’t spell out every expense that you can use your ABLE account for. Instead, the IRS is responsible for making a decision as to what is allowed. Sometimes, the IRS or the Social Security Administration (SSA) will issue guidance to clarify whether particular items are QDEs. As of 2022, for instance, the SSA has confirmed that food is considered a QDE.
The IRS has broadly defined qualified disability expenses to accommodate each ABLE account owner's specific needs. This means that any expense related to the beneficiary as a result of living a life with a disability will generally qualify as a QDE.
What Qualifies as an Eligible Expense?
The guidance on determining QDEs explicitly says that the term should be “broadly construed to permit the inclusion of basic living expenses and should not be limited to items for which there is a medical necessity or which provide no benefits to others in addition to the benefit to the eligible individual.” This means that the range of expenses you can use your ABLE account for is very broad: It even includes smartphones and tablets.
When it comes to determining whether a specific expense is a QDE, you should first look at the list above. If an expense clearly falls within one of the categories spelled out by the IRS, it is a QDE.
You might be unsure about some expenses, however. In this case, it’s best to check the guides provided by the ABLE National Resource Center. Their guides cover a variety of different types of expense:
- Rent or Mortgage Payments
- Assistive Technology (AT)
- Purchase of Vehicle
- Supplies for COVID-19
- Everyday Expenses, Including Food
- Managing the ABLE Account
Tips on Using Your ABLE Account
In addition to the general guidelines issued by the IRS and SSA, there are also some important factors to keep in mind when it comes to working with your ABLE account.
- If an expense clearly fits into a QDE category, it doesn’t need to be “related” to a disability. For instance, housing expenses (such as rent or mortgage, utilities, trash removal, real property taxes) are QDE categories that do not need a connection to the disability.
- If in doubt, use non-ABLE money for things you are not sure about and save your ABLE money for things that are clearly covered. You could use your ABLE money to pay rent, for instance, which might free up non-ABLE funds to pay for other expenses.
- Use public funds where you can. For example, Medicaid may be able to pay for transportation costs to a health care provider, special educational programs, specially adapted computer equipment, and many other things. If public benefits can pay for something, you should use them rather than your ABLE funds, which can be used for things that public benefits cannot.
- Lastly, make sure you keep records of any expense that you are unsure about. If you use your ABLE account for a non-eligible expense, you will likely hear from the IRS. You should be prepared to explain why you thought a particular expense was a QDE, and if you keep records, that will be a lot easier.
Crist explains that if you use ABLE funds for non-qualified purposes, you should self-report the amount of the non-qualified distribution on your annual tax return. You would then pay income tax plus a 10% penalty on just the earnings portion of the non-qualified distribution. “The IRS would only independently review a QDE/non-QDE determination,” she says, “if the eligible beneficiary were selected for a standard IRS audit.” Still, it makes sense to be careful.
Can I Use My ABLE Account for Rent?
Yes. You can use money from an ABLE account for housing expenses. If you're eligible for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the money must be used within the month it was withdrawn so it doesn't affect your SSI eligibility. Plus, having an ABLE account doesn't affect other housing benefits, like Section 8.
Can an ABLE Account Be Used for Food?
Yes. An ABLE account may be used to pay for the account owner's groceries, food delivery, restaurant meals, takeout, and more. The SSA recently affirmed that food is a QDE.
Can an ABLE Account Be Used for a Vacation?
Yes. A vacation qualifies as an eligible expense as long as it can help maintain or improve the health, independence, or quality of life for the person living with a disability.
The Bottom Line
The money in your ABLE account can be used for anything that is a qualified disability expense, often shortened to a QDE. This is a broad category that includes education, employment training and support, food, housing, transportation, assistive technology and personal support services, health, prevention and wellness, financial management and administrative services, legal fees, and expenses for a funeral and burial.
If an expense clearly fits within these categories, it need not be disability-related. Just be sure to keep records of what you spend your ABLE money on, in case the IRS raises questions.