COVID-19 Bill Eases Rules for Retirement Accounts.

The COVID-19 stimulus (CARES Act) signed by President Trump last week includes some important tax relief for older retirement account owners.

First, The required minimum distribution (RMD) rules for Individual Retirement Accounts and 401(k)s are waived for 2020. If you haven’t taken your RMDs for 2020 yet, or have some RMDs left to take, you can leave the money in the account. The waiver applies to inherited retirement accounts as well.

This could be a bigger benefit than one might think. A 2020 RMD is based upon the account’s value as of December 31, 2019. If the value of a retirement account took a nose dive, the 2020 RMD (based upon a pre-correction value) would take a larger percentage of the account’s current value than otherwise would have been taken but for the correction. This waiver will give one’s retirement account a chance to recover without having the depletion caused by a forced RMD.

In addition, the IRS has extended the tax-filing deadline for 2019 federal income tax returns from April 15 to July 15. The extension postpones the deadline for making a prior-year contribution (for 2019) to a traditional and Roth IRAs to July 15. Be sure to indicate to the IRA custodian that the amounts contributed before July 15, 2020, are a 2019 prior-year contribution.

The CARES Act also waives the 10% pre-age 591/2 early distribution penalty on distribution of up $100,000 from IRAs and other retirement plans for individuals who meet the requirements of being affected by the coronavirus. Income taxes would still be due on pre-tax distributions, but could be spread evenly over three years, and the funds could be repaid anytime during the three years. Finally, rules for plan loans are relaxed for those who meet the definition of being affected by the coronavirus. Loan limits are increased and repayments postponed.

If you need assistance with your financial or retirement planning, give me a call, I can help.

Stay safe; wash your hands frequently!

COVID-19 and Market History.

We are several weeks into the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. The stock market has been is near free-fall as confusion, panic, and dare say hysteria grip the public. We don’t know how or when this crisis will reach the end of its course.

The graph below shows the performance of the S&P 500 from January 1980 to March 2020.  This period included the 1987 market crash, two gulf wars, the dot-com bubble, and the financial crisis of 2008-2009. The various down periods caused serious concern and even panic.  But notice that regardless of the cause of each downturn, and the market hysteria that ensued, the market always – always – recovered.

Successful investing requires patience and discipline.  Patience is the understanding that wealth is built over the long term and the ability to follow a long-term plan through short-term crises to achieving a long term goal.

Discipline is the ability to stick to your investment plan regardless of what the market, talking heads, or the investment herd is doing at any given moment.  While others are losing their heads, the important thing is to keep yours.  Even though the urge to “SELL!!!!” may be overwhelming, not reacting and maintaining a cool head will reward you in the long run.

It has been over 10 years since the last bear market (defined as a market-wide decline of stock prices of at least 20%) of 2008-2009.  We were actually long overdue for one.  While the cause of this crisis is different from previous ones, the eventual outcome will be the same.  The market decline will stop, the market will reorient and once again resume its inevitable upward climb to recovery and beyond.

The time-tested advice during volatile times is to not time the market (get out and get back in).   Doing so risks missing the strongest points of a recovery. By the time someone reacts to “stabilizing” evidence, she most likely missed the best opportunity for recovery.

We don’t know how far the market will drop, when the market will start to recover, or how long it will take to reach pre-crisis levels. But know one thing – it will.

The SECURE Act Sets a Tax Trap for IRA Beneficiary Trusts.

The newly enacted Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (“SECURE”) Act made major changes to the distribution rules for inherited IRAs. With few exceptions, the SECURE Act replaced the old life expectancy “stretch” IRA distribution rules with a mandatory 10 year distribution rule. This creates a potential tax trap for certain trusts named as an IRA beneficiary.

People frequently designate a trust as an IRA beneficiary. These trusts, often referred to as IRA beneficiary, or inheritance trusts, are designed to control and manage IRA distributions for beneficiaries. One popular type of IRA beneficiary trust is known as an “accumulation” trust.

An accumulation trust is frequently used in situations where the trust beneficiary may be unable to directly manage IRA distributions. An accumulation trust requires the trustee to retain IRA distributions in the trust. The trust does not pay out an IRA distribution to the beneficiary in the year received. The trust dictates the if and how IRA distributions will be paid to the trust beneficiary.

With few exceptions, the entire balance of an inherited IRA must now be distributed to the trust within 10 years of the account owner’s death. These distributions will be taxed at trust income tax rates because they are kept in the trust. An IRA distribution that exceeds $12,750 will be taxed at the highest marginal rate of 37%! Unless the IRA balance is very small, taxes will take a huge portion of IRA distributions, leaving a lot less for the trust beneficiary.

The SECURE Act’s 10 year distribution rule will impose significant tax burdens on many existing trusts and estate plans. More than ever you need to work with a qualified advisor who can help guide you through all the new rules and ensure you make the right decisions with respect to any changes to your retirement or estate planning.

Do you need help determining how best to best adapt your retirement or estate plan to the SECURE Act? Give me a call, I can help.

Taking a Closer Look – The SECURE Act’s “Eligible Designated Beneficiary.”

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (“SECURE”) Act became law on January 1, 2020. The SECURE Act made major changes to the distribution rules governing inherited IRAs (both traditional and Roth) and company sponsored retirement plan accounts. In general, the Act requires a designated beneficiary of an inherited retirement account to withdraw the entire balance from the account within 10 years of the year of the original account owner’s death if the account owner dies after December 31, 2019.

However, the SECURE Act carved out a class of beneficiaries who remain eligible to take distributions from an inherited retirement account using the old life expectancy rules. Beginning January 1, 2020, an individual who qualifies as an “eligible designated beneficiary” may continue to use the life expectancy method to calculate minimum annual distributions from an inherited IRA or other retirement account. Those individuals eligible to use this technique are: (i) surviving spouses; (ii) children of the account owner who have not reached majority; (iii) disabled individuals; (iv) individuals who are chronically ill; and (v) beneficiaries not more than 10 years younger than the deceased account owner. All but the surviving spouse category bear a closer look.

Child of the account owner who has not reached majority. People may assume the term “majority” as used in the Act means age 18. For purposes of the new rules, a child could reach the age of majority at age 26. Under current Internal Revenue Code and Regulations, a child may be treated as not having reached the age of majority until age 26 if they have not completed a “specified course of education.” Thus, if both conditions are met, a surviving child of the deceased account owner may use the life expectancy method of calculating distributions until age 26. However, this may change with future regulations. Nevertheless, when the child reaches majority, he must then switch to the new 10 year distribution rule with regard to any funds remaining in the inherited account. This category excludes grandchildren of the deceased account owner.

Furthermore, a child who is disabled as defined in the Internal Revenue Code when he reaches majority may continue thereafter to use the life expectancy method of calculating minimum annual distributions so long as he continues to be disabled.

Disabled persons. Not all disabled persons may use the life expectancy method of calculating minimum annual distributions from an inherited retirement account. Under the Act, an individual is considered to be disabled if she is unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of a medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long continued and indefinite duration. (This is the same definition used to determine whether a pre-age 59½ withdrawal from an IRA will be subject to the 10% early withdrawal penalty.) The beneficiary must provide proof of her disability. If the beneficiary does not meet, or no longer meets this definition of “disabled,” she must use the 10 year distribution period mandated by the Act.

The chronically ill. Under the Act, a “chronically ill individual” is one who has been certified by a licensed health care practitioner as: (i) being unable to perform at least two activities of daily living for a period that is indefinite and reasonably expected to be lengthy in nature due to a loss of functional capacity , (ii) having a level of disability that is similar to the level of that described in clause (i) above, or (iii) requiring substantial supervision to protect the individual from threats to health and safety due to cognitive impairment. If the beneficiary is deemed to be chronically ill, he may use the life expectancy method to calculate minimum annual distributions from an inherited retirement account. This definition is stricter than the definition found in a typical long term care insurance policy, which will require that an individual be unable to perform activities of daily living for at least 90 days to be deemed “chronically ill.”

Individuals not more than 10 years younger than the deceased account owner. This category of eligible designated beneficiary includes surviving siblings, a domestic partner, or friends of the deceased account owner if they are not more than 10 years younger than the deceased. Any beneficiary falling within this category may use the life expectancy method of calculating required annual distributions from an inherited retirement account.

For any designated beneficiary who is not an eligible designated beneficiary under the Act, he or she must withdraw the entire balance of an inherited retirement account within 10 years after the year of the death of the account owner if the death occurs after December 31, 2019.

The SECURE Act brought significant changes to an already complex area tax law and will have an impact on many financial and estate plans. As with any tax law change, one should review their financial or estate plan to determine how these changes may affect them.

Do you need help understanding the impact the SECURE Act has on your current planning, or need help determining how best to adapt your financial or estate plan to the new law? Give me a call, I can help.

Considering the Stretch IRA Rules After the SECURE Act.

As a financial and estate planning technique, the “stretch” IRA allowed the beneficiary of an inherited IRA to take distributions from the IRA over her remaining life expectancy, extending the life and income tax advantages (tax-deferred or tax free growth) of the IRA. For a very young beneficiary, this could have been a virtual lifetime. That all changed with the recent passage of the SECURE (“Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement”) Act.

The SECURE Act severely curtailed the viability of the “stretch” technique for distributions from inherited IRAs, both traditional and Roth. Under the Act, most non-spouse beneficiaries will have to withdraw all of the funds from an inherited IRA within 10 years of the death of the original account owner. The new rules apply to traditional or Roth IRAs inherited after December 31, 2019.

Beginning January 1, 2020, only an “eligible designated beneficiary” may continue to use the stretch technique for distributions from an inherited IRA. Under the SECURE Act, those beneficiaries eligible to use the stretch technique are: i) surviving spouses; ii) minor children of the account owner – until age of majority (but not grandchildren); iii) disabled individuals; iv) individuals who are chronically ill; and v) beneficiaries not more than 10 years younger than the deceased account owner.

If an individual does not qualify as an eligible designated beneficiary under one of those 5 categories, she must use a new 10 year rule – the entire account balance must be withdrawn by December 31 of the 10th year following the year of the account owner’s death. Note too, that a minor child of a deceased account owner may use the old life-expectancy distributions rules until she reaches the age of majority, and then must switch to the 10 year rule thereafter.

Of course, if an IRA owner died before January 1, 2020, the old stretch IRA distribution rules still apply.

Caveat: While this post focuses on the SECURE Act’s impact on distributions from traditional and Roth IRAs, the new rules affect distributions from all inherited qualified retirement plan accounts, including SEP IRA, SIMPLE IRA, 401(k), and 403(b) accounts.

The SECURE Act adds a thick layer of complexity to an already confusing area of tax law. As with any tax law change, one should review their financial and estate plans to better understand how the SECURE Act may affect those plans.

Do you need help understanding the impact the SECURE Act has on your current planning, or need help determining how best to adapt your financial or estate plan to the new law? Give me a call, I can help.

The SECURE Act Becomes Law – How Will it Affect Your Financial and Estate Planning?

The SECURE Act, which passed the US House of Representatives last summer (2019), had been flying well below most people’s radar as it seemed to lose steam in the Senate, despite bipartisan support. However, quite surprisingly and with little fanfare, it was passed into law just before Christmas, and took effect January 1, 2020.

In brief, the SECURE Act changes the age when one must begin taking distributions from qualified retirement accounts, changes provisions regarding contributions to IRAs and penalty-free withdraws from retirement accounts, as well as beneficiary distribution rules for inherited retirement accounts.

For those individuals who are currently working and saving for retirement, the SECURE Act removes the age limit for contributions to traditional IRAs. Under the old rules, a taxpayer could not contribute to a traditional IRA after reaching age 70½, regardless of whether he was employed. The SECURE Act removed that age limit. Now, you may contribute to an IRA regardless of your age, as long as you are working and have earned income. This change will help boost retirement savings for older taxpayers.

In addition, the SECURE Act raises the age at which one must begin taking distributions from retirement accounts. As of January 1, 2020, the age at which require minimum distributions must begin is 72. So, if you reach age 70½ in 2020, you can relax. You may wait until April 1 following the year in which you turn 72 to begin taking distributions from your retirement accounts. If you reached age in 70½ in 2019, the rules have not changed. You must still take your initial RMD before April 1, 2020, if you did not take it before the end of 2019.

The SECURE Act also eliminates the 10% penalty for early withdrawals from a retirement account in situations involving the birth or adoption of a child. In such cases, up to $5,000 may be withdrawn from a retirement account, penalty free, within a year of a birth or adoption of a child. The withdrawn funds may be re-contributed to the account at a later date.

Likely the most significant changes brought by the SECURE Act involve distributions from retirement accounts after the death of the account owner. Under pre-2020 law, an important planning strategy for retirement accounts was to name a spouse, child, or others as account beneficiary to allow for post-death distributions to be extended, or “stretched,” over the beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy. This had the affect of prolonging the tax deferral of investment gains in a retirement account and reducing the amount a beneficiary was required to withdraw each year.

Under the SECURE Act, the “stretch” is eliminated for most non-spouse beneficiaries. For those affected beneficiaries, all funds in a retirement account will have to be distributed within 10 years of the year of the account owner’s death. This will have the effect of increasing the amount of each year’s distribution from a retirement account and the taxes to be paid on those distributions.

Surviving spouses are excluded under the Act, and still have the option of stretching distributions over their remaining life expectancy. Minor children are also exempt from the new rules until they reach the age of majority. Finally, certain disabled and chronically ill beneficiaries and beneficiaries who are not more than 10 years younger than the account owner are also exempt.

The SECURE Act does not apply to retirement accounts owned by individuals who died before January 1, 2020. The old stretch rules will continue to apply.

Whenever significant law changes occur, it’s important to understand the real or potential impact it may have on your financial and estate planning. You should always work with a qualified, knowledgeable and trusted advisor.

If you have questions regarding the SECURE Act’s possible impact on your planning, give me a call. I can help.

Need to take an IRA RMD before the end of the year? Why not make a tax-avoiding QCD instead?

IRA owners must begin taking annual required minimum distributions (RMD) once they reach age 70½. An RMD is taxable as income for the year in which the RMD is taken. A lot of my clients dislike RMDs because they are a forced distribution – by law, an RMD must be taken after age 70½ whether or not the client wants the distribution. For these clients, the RMD unnecessarily pushes up their taxable income and consequently their income tax bill.

So what can a taxpayer do to eliminate, or at least reduce the income tax liability that comes with the RMD? Enter the qualified charitable distribution (QCD).

A QCD allows a taxpayer to transfer an RMD from an IRA directly to a qualifying charity without the taxpayer including the RMD amount in taxable income. The amount contributed to charity via the QCD (up to a limit of $100,000) may be excluded from adjusted gross income while satisfying that year’s RMD. The QCD exclusion is allowable regardless of whether the taxpayer takes a standard deduction or itemizes deductions. The QCD amount may not be taken as a charitable deduction if one itemizes. The benefit of the QCD is the exclusion of the QCD amount from adjusted gross income for the year in which the QCD is taken.

There are several important rules that apply to QCDs. First, the account from which the QCD is made must be an IRA, and the amount must be taxable funds (neither nondeductible contributions nor after-tax rollover funds may be used for the QCD). The IRA may be a traditional, inherited, or an inactive SEP or SIMPLE IRA. A taxpayer may not make a QCD from a 401(k) or other employer sponsored retirement account.

Second, the taxpayer must have reached the age of 70½ before the QCD is made. It isn’t enough that one turns age 70½ during the year. The QCD must be made after the date the taxpayer reaches age 70½.

Third, the charity receiving the QCD funds must be a qualifying 501(c)(3) organization. A QCD is not available for a contribution to a private foundation or a donor-advised fund.

Fourth, the amount of the QCD is capped at $100,000 per year per taxpayer. Thus, taxpayers who must take an RMD of more than $100,000 will still be required to include in adjusted gross income that portion of the RMD that exceeds the $100,000 QCD limit. However, if the taxpayer is married and files jointly, both spouses can make a $100,000 QCD from their separate IRAs.

Finally, the QCD must be made via direct transfer from the IRA to the charity. The check cannot be made out to the taxpayer. If the check is made payable to the taxpayer, he may not later give those funds to charity for the QCD, and the amount of the distribution must be included as income on the taxpayer’s return.

A QCD can be a powerful tool to help avoid income taxes when faced with mandatory RMDs. However, the rules governing RMDs and QCDs are many and complex. Make sure you are working with a qualified professional.

Have questions about QCDs, or RMDs in general? Contact me, I can help.

Working the System – Parents Giving Up Custody of Their Kids to Get College Financial Aid

Aunt Becky’s legal woes arose from her efforts to get her children into the University of Southern California. However, for many families, the problem isn’t getting their kids into a college of their choice, the problem is paying for it.

Some enterprising parents in Illinois reportedly have given up custody of their children to help them get college scholarships. According to a news story at Probublica online, dozens of wealthy families in Illinois have given up legal guardianship of their children so the teenagers can claim dramatically lower incomes and earn need-based financial aid.

When the guardianship proceeding is completed — usually during junior or senior years of high school — students are able to declare themselves financially independent on college applications. In one instance detailed by the Wall Street Journal, a student whose parents owned a $1.2 million home only had to declare $4,200 in income from a summer job. That student was able to obtain about $47,000 in scholarships and federal Pell grants to attend a private university that costs $65,000 per year.

The practice is legal, but the United States Department of Education is looking into the matter. And some universities are pushing back against the practice, reducing university-based financial aid awards to some students.

The article notes that laws in Illinois governing the transfer of legal guardianship are broadly written and that as long as the parents, children and the court agree, a judge can approve the transfer even if parents are able to financially support their kids. It’s not clear if the tactic has been tried in other states.

You can read the entire Propublica article here.

How Will the SECURE Act Affect Your Retirement Savings?

Having passed the US House of Representatives and now moving quickly through the US Senate, the SECURE (Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement) Act appears to be on its way to soon becoming law. The SECURE Act will make numerous changes to how money is contributed to, and withdrawn from retirement accounts. While many of the Act’s provisions are administrative in nature, that is, they deal with the way retirement plans are administered, several provisions will directly affect retirement savings and withdrawals. Here are some of the more important ways the SECURE Act could affect your retirement savings:

First, the Act pushes back the time when retirement savers must begin taking distributions from their IRAs and other retirement accounts. Under current law, a person is required to begin taking retirement account distributions at age 70½, whether or not he or she wants to. The SECURE Act will push the age when required distributions must begin to age 72. This means that retirement savings may continue to grow untouched and untaxed for another year and a half before distributions must begin.

Next, the SECURE Act eliminates the age restrictions on IRA contributions. Americans are living and working longer. However, under current law a person may not contribute to an IRA after age 70½, even if still working. Under the SECURE Act, a person may continue to contribute to an IRA after age of 70½ if still working.

Finally, the SECURE Act changes the required minimum distribution rules with respect to IRA and other retirement account balances upon the death of the account owner. Under the Act, distributions to individuals other than the surviving spouse of the account owner, disabled or chronically ill individuals, individuals who are not more than 10 years younger than the account owner, or child of the account owner who has not reached the age of majority, are generally required to be distributed by the end of the tenth calendar year following the year of the account owner’s death.

Under current law, a non-spouse beneficiary of an IRA or defined contribution-type retirement account [such as a 401(k) or 403(b) account] may elect to “stretch” distributions from an inherited retirement account over his or her remaining life expectancy. For younger beneficiaries, this means that the remaining account balance has a longer time to grow tax deferred before being withdrawn, and the amounts withdrawn may be taxed at lower rates. The SECURE Act will accelerate distributions from inherited retirement accounts, reducing the time horizon for tax deferred growth and increasing the taxes that must be paid on the larger withdrawals.

This change will have an impact on beneficiary designations and estate plans, especially those situations in which a trust is named as a beneficiary of a retirement account.

Insofar as the SECURE Act will affect retirement saving and distributions in these and other ways, readers should plan to meet with a qualified legal or financial professional to determine the best way forward under the Act should it become law.

If you don’t have an attorney or financial planner, but would like to work with one, please give me a call. I can help.

DIY Estate Planning – Another Cautionary Tale

“I don’t need a lawyer. I don’t have an estate, just have a house and some bank accounts. My family can help me out, and look, here’s a form I found on the internet I can use. What can go wrong?”

Yet time and again, what appears to be a simple and effective way to avoid some legal fees ends up creating a legal quagmire costing tens of thousand of dollars to remedy. Do-it-yourselfers mostly turn to family members or the internet for help. A recent case out of Macomb County Probate Court gives us another example of just how “well” that can turn out:

In mid-2016, Martin met with several members of his family for the purpose of preparing his last will and testament. The meeting was attended by Martin’s brother, John, John’s son Paul, John’s daughter Elise, and Martin’s niece, Theresa.

John downloaded and printed a will form off the internet, and Elise completed the fill-in-the-blank form according to Martin’s instructions. The form provided that all of Martin’s assets were to be distributed equally among Martin’s 3 siblings. The family members also discussed the status of Martin’s bank accounts. After completing the form, the group went to Comerica Bank so Martin could sign the will before a notary. While there, Martin and Theresa also signed new signature cards for each of Martin’s 6 accounts at the bank to give Theresa access to the accounts as the family explained to Martin. Unfortunately, Martin died about 4 months later.

As you may have guessed, a dispute arose after Martin’s death over ownership of the Comerica bank accounts, a dispute which ended up in the Macomb County Probate Court.

At trial, Theresa asserted the funds belonged to her as the surviving joint owner. According to Comerica, signing the new cards by Martin and Theresa established them as joint owners of all 6 accounts (containing about $680,000). Martin’s niece, Elise, now personal representative of Martin’s estate, countered that the funds belonged to the estate for distribution to his siblings per the terms of Martin’s will. Martin had discussed this with the family and that certainly was his understanding and intention when he added Theresa onto the accounts. Following a bench trial, the probate judge sided with Elise that the money belonged to Martin’s estate.

Not satisfied with the probate court loss Theresa appealed to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which again sided with Elise and Martin’s estate. The court opined that although creation of the accounts in Martin and Theresa’s names was prima facia evidence of Martin’s intention to vest title of the accounts in Theresa’s name upon his death, Elise was able to overcome Theresa’s prima facia case that Theresa was entitled to survivor rights to Martin’s accounts. The court noted that Martin did not seek independent counsel and was advised only by his family. Further, the evidence at the trial showed Martin discussed creating “convenience accounts” with his family members and may have mistakenly believed that by adding Theresa as a co-owner, she was only going to be a signer on the accounts, which was consistent with what Martin and his family discussed.

Nothing is simple and straightforward when it comes to estate planning or any other legal matter. You may think you are doing one thing, but the result is something completely unexpected, which can lead to disastrous, and costly, results. (Imagine what it cost in legal fees to settle Martin’s mess.) You should look to family members for a referral, not legal advice. Yes, attorneys cost money, but you are paying for their expertise and advice, which can save you or your family much more in the long run.

Engage knowledgeable legal counsel whatever your problem. Work with an attorney you trust. Don’t be afraid to spend some money up front for good legal advice to save a lot more money later on.

The case is In re Estate of Martin Langer. You can read the full opinion of the Michigan Court of Appeals here.