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How Will the SECURE Act Impact Your Retirement Planning?

by Westray Veasey, J.D.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act (the “SECURE Act”), enacted on December 20, 2019, is landmark legislation containing a number of provisions that will affect most clients’ retirement planning. Here is a look at some of the more important elements of the Act that impact individuals.

With Congress concerned that we are not saving enough for retirement and recognizing that people are working later in life, the SECURE Act lifts the prohibition on contributing to a traditional IRA after the year an individual reaches age 70 ½. (There are no age limits on contributions to 401(k) plans or ROTH IRAs.) Beginning in 2020, individuals of any age can contribute earned income to a traditional IRA. This change allows people working past age 70 ½ an additional way to save for retirement and to potentially further reduce their taxable income, Medicare premiums, and taxation of their social security.

In addition, the Act pushed back the starting age for required minimum distributions (“RMDs”) from age 70 ½ to age 72. For individuals who turn age 70 ½ in or after 2020, their required beginning date for RMDs is April 1 of the year following the year they turn age 72. (If you turned age 70 ½ in 2019, you are under the old rules and must take an RMD by April 1, 2020.) Be aware, as under the prior law, if you push your first RMD to April 1 of the following year, you will have two RMDs for that year, as the following year’s RMD will also be due by year end. Clients who are not relying on their IRAs for living expenses can take advantage of the tax deferral offered by IRAs for another 18 months, but should they? Waiting longer to begin taking RMDs could push you into a higher tax bracket during retirement, and potentially increase the amount of taxable social security or generate additional income-related Medicare premium surcharges.

To counterbalance the tax deferral from the extension of contribution and RMD ages past 70 ½, the SECURE Act largely eliminated the “stretch IRA” strategy. Under the prior law, designated beneficiaries (humans and certain qualifying trusts) of inherited IRAs could take RMDs over their life expectancy. The younger the beneficiary, the greater the remaining life expectancy and the smaller percentage of the account withdrawn and taxed each year. Now, for IRA owners who die after December 31, 2019, beneficiaries other than “eligible designated beneficiaries” must empty the account by the end of the 10th year after the death of the IRA owner. Eligible designated beneficiaries are spouses, disabled or chronically ill persons, and individuals who are not more than 10 years younger than the deceased IRA owner. Those beneficiaries may generally still take their distributions over their life expectancy as under the pre-SECURE Act rules. Minor children of the account owner are also eligible designated beneficiaries, but they can only take age-based RMDs under the old rules until the age of majority, and then the 10 year rule kicks in.

Clients should reevaluate their IRA beneficiary choices and revisit how their IRA dollars fit into their overall estate planning strategy. For some, this could be as simple as making sure your beneficiary is an eligible designated beneficiary, or if that is not possible, increasing the number of beneficiaries to spread out the tax hit. Some clients might want to consider more complex strategies. Certain trust strategies could allow them to pass their accumulated retirement funds to their heirs on a tax-preferred basis, such as contributing their RMDs to a trust that can purchase tax-free wealth replacement life insurance or using a charitable remainder trust as the beneficiary of their account. In situations where the client has designated as their IRA beneficiary a trust that was designed to use the beneficiary’s life expectancy to stretch out RMDs under the prior law, the application of the SECURE Act rules could produce unintended adverse effects.

There were also a few notable non-retirement provisions in the SECURE Act. Tax-free distributions up to $10,000 (lifetime) from a 529 plan are allowed to pay principal or interest on a qualified education loan of a designated beneficiary and each of their siblings. Under the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, for tax years 2018 and after, tax on the unearned income of children (the “kiddie tax”) was based on rates applicable to trusts, which are very compressed. The SECURE Act repealed these new rules so that starting in 2020, and with the option to start retroactively in 2018 and 2019, the kiddie tax rate returns to the marginal tax rate of the child’s parents. Potential tax savings could be achieved by filing amended returns to apply the new-old rates to unearned income in 2018 and/or 2019. Lastly, certain tax breaks were extended through 2020, including the exclusion from gross income for the discharge of certain qualified principal residence indebtedness, the mortgage insurance premium deduction and the deduction for qualified tuition and related expenses.

Like most tax laws, the SECURE Act presents both opportunities and challenges. Because most of its provisions go into effect in 2020, clients should talk with their advisor about whether and how the SECURE Act impacts them.

As Fiduciary Counsel, Westray oversees the firm’s legal matters, including its trust activities. Westray also serves as a resource to the firm’s individual clients with regard to their estate planning matters and to our nonprofit clients with regard to compliance issues.