IRS Clarifies Tax Treatment of Wellness Program Rewards

The IRS Chief Counsel Advice has issued a Memorandum explaining that an employer may not exclude from an employee’s income under section 105 or section 106:

1) cash rewards paid to an employee for participating in a wellness program; and

2) reimbursements of premiums for participating in a wellness program if the premiums for the wellness program were originally made by salary reduction through a section 125 cafeteria plan.

While coverage by an employer-provided wellness program that provides medical care as defined under section 213(d) is generally excluded from an employee’s gross income under section 106(a), and any section 213(d) medical care provided by the program is excluded from the employee’s gross income under section 105(b), any reward, incentive or other benefit provided by the medical program that is not medical care as defined under section 213(d) is included in an employee’s income, unless it is otherwise excludable as an employee fringe benefit under section 132.

For example, a wellness program that provides employees with a de minimis fringe benefit, such as a tee-shirt, would satisfy the requirements to be an excluded fringe benefit. However, the employer payment of gym membership fees does not qualify as medical care as defined under section 213(d) and would not be excludable from the employee’s income, even if provided through a wellness plan or program, because payment or reimbursement of gym fees is a cash benefit that is not excludable as a de minimis fringe benefit.

In addition, cash rewards received from a wellness program do not qualify as the reimbursement of medical care as defined under section 213(d) or as an excludable fringe benefit under section 132, and therefore are not excludable from an employee’s income.

Finally, the exclusions under sections 106(a) and 105(b) do not apply to reimbursement of a portion of the employee’s premium for the wellness program that was excluded from gross income under section 106(a) (including salary reduction amounts pursuant to a cafeteria plan under section 125 that are applied to pay for such coverage). Accordingly, the reimbursement of such amounts are included in the employee’s gross income.

IRS Chief Counsel Advice Memorandum

Author: Erwin Kratz

Erwin Kratz practices exclusively in the areas of ERISA and employee benefits law, focusing on tax and regulatory matters relating to qualified and nonqualified deferred compensation and welfare benefits.