The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (“SECURE”) Act passed the House of Representatives in May of 2019 with bipartisan support. It was recently included in a 2020 appropriations bill that is anticipated to pass this week.
This proposed bill provides some benefits. It expands Section 529 education savings accounts to include such categories as apprenticeships and homeschooling expenses; expands multiple-employer plan arrangement for those outside of the trade associations and professional organizations; and increases the small-employer retirement plan startup cost credit. This will make it much easier for small businesses to offer retirement plans to their employees. The rest of the article will focus on IRA’s. Keep in mind that the IRA required minimum distribution rules discussed below also generally apply to all defined contribution plans (e.g., 401(k), profit-sharing, and 403(b) plans). Let’s start with the good news first.
Repeal of the Maximum Age to Contribute
Currently, an individual may only contribute to a traditional IRA for years in which he or she has compensation and will not attain the age of 70.5 before the end of the tax year. The SECURE Act would eliminate any age limit on the ability to contribute to a traditional IRA. People are living longer and work past age 70. They might as well be afforded the tax benefits afforded to everyone else as long as they are working. This does not affect Roth IRA’s since there has never been an age limit to contribute to a Roth IRA.
Increases the Age for Required Minimum Distributions from 70.5 to 72
An IRA owner must begin taking Required Minimum Distributions by his “Required Beginning Date.” This is the later of the calendar year in which the plan participant retires, or April 1st of the calendar year in which the individual reaches age 70.5. If the account owner had not reached the age of 70.5 at the time of his death, the surviving spouse beneficiary may defer taking Required Minimum Distributions until such time as the deceased account owner would have reached age 70.5. The SECURE Act would increase the age for taking Required Minimum Distributions to 72. Again, this would make sense to have the retirement age triggers associated with these laws expand along with the participants’ increased lifespans. This does not affect Roth IRA’s either since there is no Required Minimum Distribution which must be taken while the Roth IRA owner is still alive.
Now we get to the bad. In short, it eliminates stretch IRA’s. One commenter summed it up as “changing the rules of the game in the eight inning.”
Repeals the Stretch Feature for Most Inherited IRA’s
As the law currently stands, how distributions are distributed depends on the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased and whether the participant died before or after his Required Beginning Date.
If the Spouse is the Beneficiary
There are three options if the spouse is the designated beneficiary and the IRA owner died before the Required Beginning Date: 1)-The surviving spouse can elect to treat the IRA as the surviving spouse’s own IRA and defer distributions until his or her Required Beginning Date arrives. 2)-The surviving spouse can treat the IRA as an inherited one and take distributions over the surviving spouse’s life expectancy. This would defer distributions until the year in which the deceased IRA owner would have reached 70.5. 3)-Elect the 5-year rule in which the entire IRA balance must be distributed no later than December 31st of the 5th year after the IRA owner died.
There are two options if the spouse is the beneficiary and the IRA owner dies after the Required Beginning Date. 1)-Just as before, the surviving spouse can treat the IRA as the surviving spouse’s own. 2)-The surviving spouse can treat the IRA as an inherited one but must take distributions over the longer of the surviving spouse’s life expectancy or the deceased IRA owner’s life expectancy.
If a Non-Spouse is the Beneficiary
Distributions are handled differently if the deceased lists a non-spouse as the beneficiary. Treatment for this category depends on whether the IRA owner died before or after the Required Beginning Date. If before the Required Beginning Date, the non-spouse beneficiary can take distributions over his/her life expectancy. Additionally, the beneficiary may elect the 5-year rule. If after the Required Beginning Date, the non-spouse beneficiary must take distributions over the life expectancy of the younger of the beneficiary or the deceased IRA owner. If there are multiple designated beneficiaries, distributions will be taken over the oldest beneficiary’s life expectancy. It is prudent to split the IRA into multiple accounts if there is a large gap in age between the beneficiaries. This allows the younger beneficiary/beneficiaries to stretch their portion of the IRA over the course of their individual lives and not the life of the oldest beneficiary.
Since there are no Required Beginning Date for a Roth IRA, the post-death minimum distribution rules will always be applied as though the Roth IRA owner died before his Required Beginning Date, regardless of when he dies. Thus, the 5-year rule would be applied.
Comparing the Current System to the SECURE Act
The current system permits traditional IRA owners to pass on large parts of their estates in a tax efficient manner to their beneficiaries. The beneficiaries may “stretch out” the distributions over a long period of time. This allows the distributions to be taxed at lower income rates. A lump sum distribution or installments over a period of 5 years may be appealing to some, but the potentially large amounts of distributions could be taxed at higher ordinary income rates.
The SECURE Act would require inherited IRA’s to be distributed in full within 10 years of the plan participant’s death. This rule would apply whether or not the plan owner died before or after his/her Required Beginning Date. There are some notable exceptions to this otherwise termination of the ability to stretch out distributions from IRA’s. The rules already in effect for surviving spouses would still apply. A child of the plan owner who has not reached the age of majority would be exempt from the 10-year rule to a certain extent. Once the child reaches majority, he/she shall cease to be an “Eligible Designated Beneficiary”, and the remaining amount shall be distributed within 10 years. Other Eligible Designated Beneficiaries include disabled individuals that meet the definition of I.R.C. § 72(m)(7) and chronically ill individuals under the definition of I.R.C. §7702(B)(c)(2).
Updating Estate Plan in Anticipation of Eliminating the Stretch IRA
The elimination of the ability of those who inherit IRA to spread the tax impact over a long time period has one practical impact: making Roth IRAs more appealing. The distributions from Roth IRAs are not taxed since the contributions were from after-tax income. Thus, the aforementioned adverse consequences for beneficiaries of the 10-year rule wouldn’t affect the designated beneficiaries of Roth IRAs in any way. If you are a young contributor hoping to transfer more of your retirement account to your beneficiaries and less to the government, it may be prudent to start contributing to a Roth IRA. Contribution limits are $6,000, or $7,000 for those 50 years or older.
The only possible limitation would be if you make too much money. In 2020 for single taxpayers, allowable contributions to Roth IRAs are reduced if income reaches $124,000. No contribution is allowed if income exceeds $139,000. This limit increases to $196,000 for married filing jointly taxpayers and is completely phased out once income exceeds $206,000. However, high-income earners may utilize a “backdoor” Roth IRA. Since traditional IRAs don’t have income limits for contributions, individuals can fund a traditional IRA with nondeductible contributions. They can then convert the account into a Roth IRA.
Choosing The Right IRA for You
Your intended beneficiaries will thank you for funding your IRA through the Roth approach. The situation gets trickier for those that have already contributing large sums of money in their IRA accounts thinking their non-spouse beneficiary would be able to stretch out distributions for a long time. However, there are a couple of strategies to maximize the effectiveness of your estate plan strategy in anticipation of the SECURE Act.
First, you should consider the income tax brackets of beneficiaries. Consider designating IRA beneficiaries as those who typically fall into lower-income brackets to minimize overall tax liability. If one has both a traditional IRA and a Roth IRA, consider leaving the traditional IRA to a lower-income beneficiary. You could then leave the Roth IRA to a high-income beneficiary. For example, if the original plan was to provide for a child and his family but that child has since grown up and has a retirement plan of his own, consider naming a grandchild as the beneficiary. The grandchild would still be subject to the 10-year rule, but the grandchild would presumably be taxed at a lower rate.
Roth IRA Conversions
Next, consider doing a Roth IRA conversion. The amount being converted is included in the IRA owner’s gross income in the year of conversion and taxed at the ordinary income rate. If you are a business owner or farmer, there are ways to reduce your taxable income in the year in which you choose to do the conversion in order to not take a large tax hit. For example, farmers may utilize section 179 on capital expenditures in order to create a farming loss in the year of the conversion. However, now may be a good time to bite the bullet and do a large conversion. The federal income tax rates may the lowest they will ever be. President Trump’s Tax Cuts and Jobs Act changed the individual income tax brackets and rates to effectively lower taxes at the ordinary income level.
An alternative to doing one, large IRA to Roth IRA conversion is to do a series of conversions. The advantages of doing so are illustrated by an example taken from a MarketWatch article which shows that a hypothetical single person with taxable income of $110,000 converting a $100,000 traditional IRA into a Roth IRA would cause about half the extra income from the conversion to be taxed at 32%. However, spreading the $100,000 conversion over two years would permit the income from the conversion to be taxed at a lower rate. This effectiveness of the multi-year conversion strategy can be even further bolstered by converting over many years when taxable income is lower. This could perhaps be done during a 5-10-year period after retirement.
Another option is to distribute tax-free RMDs directly to a charity, which is known as a Qualified Charitable Distribution. Alternatively, life insurance policies could be purchased with IRA distributions. These could then be held in trust and paid out over a longer period of time.
The SECURE Act may be beneficial to retirees and include other provisions designed to make retirement accounts more inclusive for those employed by small employers. However, as is often the case with major legislation, the good comes with the bad. The Act should not be welcomed by non-spouse beneficiaries. Contact Attorney John Sexton to discuss modifying your estate plan strategy or creating one to efficiently pass your retirement accounts to the next generation.