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 The SECURE Act will make numerous changes to how money is contributed to, and withdrawn from retirement accounts.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beneficiaries, this means that the remaining account balance has a longer time to grow tax deferred before being withdrawn, and the amounts withdrawn may be taxed at lower rates.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.

Is It Time? End of Life Decision Making for Pets

My pup, Frisco, is almost 15 years old. Frisco is a miniature Australian Shepherd. Whip smart, obedient, gentle, and loves the hugs. She’s in good health for her age, though her stamina has diminished, her hearing is failing and so is the vision in her left eye. But she still loves going for walks and playing with her tennis balls and frisbees. Her life is still pretty good.

Frisco at the Rochester Bike Shop

Frisco, like your pets, is a beloved family member. We want what’s best for our pets, and we hate to see them suffer. In their waning days, when illness, chronic pain, or other disabilities take a toll, it is oftentimes difficult to know whether a pet’s quality of life has declined to the point that it may be more humane to euthanize them.

The New York Times has published a scale adapted from Canine and Feline Geriatric Oncology: Honoring the Human-Animal Bond, by Alice Villalobos, D.V.M. Pet owners and caregivers can use this “Quality of Life Scale” to determine whether to continue supportive care for an aging or sick pet or whether euthanasia is a more humane option. Seven categories are covered, using a scale of 0 (very poor) to 10 (best). Scores in each category should be based on your pet’s quality of life on its own or with whatever level of supportive care works for your pet.

Frisco scored 64 out of a possible 70 points on the Quality of Life Scale. How does your pet score?

Find out at: Quality of Life Scale

UTMA Account Seized in Bankruptcy – What Can We Learn?

Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (UTMA) accounts are a popular tool for gifting assets to minors. They can easily be set up without the services of an attorney or accountant. A contribution to an UTMA account is considered a completed gift for tax purposes, but the minor beneficiary is prohibited from accessing the funds in the account until their 18th (or even 21st) birthday.

The account is managed and controlled by a custodian, who can be the minor beneficiary’s parent, guardian, or some other responsible adult. Once an UTMA account is created, any funds or other property transferred to the account cannot be returned to the person making the gift. When the minor reaches age 18 or 21, depending upon the state in which the account was created, he is entitled to access the funds in the account.

However, UTMA accounts are not without their drawbacks. Like other planning tools, unforseen circumstances can arise that defeat the good intentions of the gift maker.

One such example is illustrated in a recent bankruptcy case out of Rhode Island, In re Marcus Soori-Arachi. In 1998, when Marcus was 15, his father purchased an UTMA annuity for him with Fidelity in Nebraska. Under Nebraska law, the UTMA annuity should have terminated when Marcus turned 19 and the proceeds distributed to him. However, Marcus’s 19th birthday came and went and the account went undisturbed for another 10 years.

In 2017 Marcus, then married and living in Rhode Island, filed a petition for bankruptcy under Chapter 7 of the bankruptcy code. As required by bankruptcy law, the trustee appointed to administer Marcus’s case began the process of gathering and liquidating all of Marcus’s non-exempt assets.

The case trustee notified Fidelity that the UTMA annuity (now worth $105,000) should be turned over to the trustee. Marcus objected in the bankruptcy court, arguing that the UTMA annuity was not part of his bankruptcy estate and could not be liquidated by the trustee. (Marcus did claim a basic exemption protecting about $6,500 from the trustee.)

The bankruptcy court disagreed, finding that the UTMA annuity belonged to Marcus when he turned 19. The court ruled that it did not matter that the annuity was still in the account as of the date Marcus filed bankruptcy. Under Nebraska’s UTMA law, the custodial nature of the account terminated on his 19th birthday. Marcus gained an immediate right of ownership, possession, and control of the annuity, regardless of whether he actually exercised that right. The UTMA annuity could not be sheltered from his creditors in bankruptcy.

While this case interpreted Nebraska law, a bankruptcy court interpreting Michigan law would reach the same conclusion. While Michigan law protects the proceeds of an annuity from the claims of the creditors of a beneficiary, it does not protect the annuity proceeds from the claims of the creditors of the annuity owner, which Marcus became at age 19.

The facts of this case are unusual in that the annuity remained untouched in the UTMA for so long after Marcus reached age 19. When Marcus turned 19, he more than likely didn’t have any debts. But as time went on, he acquired a debt burden that grew to the point that he had to seek bankruptcy court protection, losing about $99,000 in the process.

Still, the case serves as an important reminder for those of you planning your estates. How well do you really know your children or other beneficiaries? Do they have excessive debt? Have they filed bankruptcy in the past? Are they being sued, or is a lawsuit threatened? What about a divorce – is a child’s marriage on the rocks? Knowing the answers to questions like these can help you structure or revise your estate plan, including beneficiary designations, to protect an inheritance from being lost to a beneficiary’s creditors.

The bankruptcy court’s opinion can be accessed here.

Middle Aged Man Dies Leaving Substantial IRA With No Beneficiary – What Happens Next?

A client, “Susan,” contacted me recently to help settle the affairs of her recently deceased son, “Frank.” Frank owned a traditional IRA that has a fairly substantial balance. Unfortunately, Frank did not list a beneficiary for the account. Shelly is Frank’s only living heir. Frank was 57 when he died in 2018. What are Susan’s options with regard to Frank’s IRA?

Because Frank’s IRA had no identifiable beneficiary, by default the IRA is payable to his estate. And since Frank died before age 70½, a special 5-year rule applies to the distribution of his IRA. In general, the entire balance of Frank’s IRA must be distributed by December 31 of the year containing the fifth anniversary of Frank’s death. In this case, the entire balance of Frank’s IRA must be distributed by December 31, 2023.

An estate does not have a life expectancy, so distributions cannot be “stretched” beyond the 5 years. However, the entire account balance does not have to be taken in one distribution, it can be broken up over multiple years to reduce the taxes payable as long as the entire account balance is distributed before the end of the fifth year following the year of the account owner’s death.

(Now, had Frank died after April 1 following the year he attained the age of 70½, Susan would have been able to stretch distributions from Frank’s IRA to the estate over his remaining life expectancy, avoiding the special 5-year distribution rule.)

If the entire account balance is not withdrawn by the end of the fifth year following Frank’s death, then the IRS could impose a penalty equal to 50% of the balance remaining. The penalty could be waived by the IRS if it finds there was a reasonable basis for the error.

Failing to designate a beneficiary of an IRA (or other retirement account for that matter) is one of the costliest mistakes you can make. Two problems are created: First, because distributions cannot be “stretched” beyond 5 years, there is little tax-deferred growth that can be achieved in such a short period of time. Second, since distributions from the account must be accelerated, the larger distributions create larger income tax bills.

It always pays to double check beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts (and life insurance, too). I recommend at least annually. Make sure you have beneficiaries named on all of your accounts, and to make sure those beneficiary designations are up to date. Has a beneficiary died, or is there some other reason to replace a beneficiary? If so, update your beneficiary designations immediately.

Do you have an issue concerning distributions from a retirement account, or planning for distributions from a retirement account? If so, call me, I can help.

April 1 Deadline to Receive first RMD Looms.

For all of you out there who turned age 70½ in 2018, you must start receiving required minimum distributions (RMDs) from your traditional IRAs and employer sponsored plans [401(k), 403(b), etc.,] by April 1, 2019.

The April 1 deadline applies to all employer sponsored plans and traditional IRAs and IRA-type plans, such as SEPs, SIMPLEs, etc. The deadline does not apply to Roth IRAs.

The April 1 deadline only applies if you did not receive your initial RMD in 2018. In addition, the April 1 deadline only applies to the RMD for the first year (2018). For all subsequent years, beginning with 2019, RMDs must be received by December 31. If you turned 70½ in 2018, but did not receive the first RMD from your IRA or other employer sponsored plan accounts by December 31, 2018, then you must take the RMD for 2018 before April 1, 2019. You still must receive the RMD for 2019 by December 31, 2019. So you will have to take two distributions in 2019, one for 2018 by April 1, and the second for 2019 before December 31.

Even though the April 1 deadline is mandatory for all owners of traditional IRAs and most participants in workplace retirement plans, those who are still employed may (if the plan allows) delay taking RMD distributions from their workplace plans until April 1 of the year after the year they retire. Still-working employees cannot, however, delay taking RMD from traditional IRAs beyond April 1 after the year they turn age 70½ . This “still-working” exception only applies to workplace plans that permit a delay.

There is less than 1 month to the April 1 deadline. It is important to remember that the distribution must be received by April 1. It isn’t good enough to request the distribution from your IRA custodian. If it isn’t received by April 1, you will still be taxed on the amount of the first year RMD that should have been received, and the IRS will impose a penalty equal to 50% of that RMD. Ouch!

If you are faced with the April 1, deadline to receive your first RMD, and are not sure how much you are required to take or how to do it, give me a call, I can help.

Frozen Pension Benefit – Do You Take the Lump Sum?

It’s a difficult question without an easy answer. For many, income security in retirement depends upon getting the answer right.

Employers have been fazing out pension programs for many years now, replacing them with 401(k) and similar employee-contribution type plans. Many of these fazed out pensions were frozen, leaving participant employees eligible to receive at least some benefit from the pension plan. For those who are entitled to a benefit from a frozen pension plan, many have the option to receive an up-front lump sum payment of their accrued pension benefit in lieu of a lifetime monthly annuity payment.

Faced with that option, do you take the money, or settle for the lifetime annuity? The knee-jerk reaction of many is to take the lump sum. I’ve seen lump sum offerings in the six-figures, a pretty significant chunk of change. But even then it’s not an easy question to answer, especially for those who have limited savings or other income resources beyond Social Security. Will that lump sum be enough to see you through for the rest of your life?

When you retire, a primary goal is to have sufficient income to cover living expenses for the rest of your life, regardless of how long you live, factoring in economic conditions such as inflation, and fluctuations in the financial markets. For married couples, that income must last for two lifetimes. To complicate things further, if you are like most people that I’ve work with, you will underestimate how long you will live in retirement. (Everyone faced with the lump sum payment question thinks they’re going to die in a car accident tomorrow so they want the money today.) But for a married couple in their middle sixties, it is reasonable to expect at least one spouse will live into their 90s. Living 3 decades in retirement is becoming commonplace.

If you elect the annuity, you (and even your spouse with certain elections) will get a check every month for the rest of your life, no matter how long you live. You bear no risk.

Suppose you decide to take the lump sum. You’ll receive a single payment from the pension plan regardless of how long you end up living. Now you have to invest that money to generate an income stream that will last the rest of your lifetime. How long will that be; and how confident are you the money will last that long? It depends upon many factors, but that risk is on you. And you don’t want to run out of money during retirement.

So what’s the answer – do you take the lump sum or settle for the annuity? Let’s look at some of the factors that can play into that decision:

If you (and your spouse if married) are in good health, and the security of a lifetime income stream is important to you, the annuity makes sense. If you are not comfortable handling your own investments, the annuity lets you leave investment decisions to the pension plan. If you are pessimistic about the economy, inflation, or other risk factors in the future, you can leave that risk with the pension plan choosing the annuity option.

The lump sum option may make sense if you (and your spouse if married) are older and in poor health. If you have sufficient savings and investments that the annuity would not be a needed source of lifetime income to make ends meet, then the lump sum may be the better choice. Also, if you are confident in your abilities to manage your investments to generate a good rate of return, and can prudently manage withdrawals from savings and investment over your retirement years, the lump sum may be appropriate.

In any event, if you are offered a lump sum payment as an option from a frozen pension plan, it is crucial to work with a competent advisor who can help you make a proper decision that meets your goals and objectives in light of your financial situation. Avoid an advisor who has a vested interest in your opting for the lump sum – like they want to manage and invest the money (for a fee).

If you are struggling with the lump sum vs. annuity question, give me a call, I can help.

The Law of Unintended Consequences – and Failure to Plan.

According to a recent story in the Boston Globe, Marcelle Harrison’s family has lived in a three-story home in Cambridge, Massachusetts for almost 40 years, during which time four generations of her family have lived. She and her family (two generations worth) may have to vacate the home because her stepfather died intestate (without a will) in 2011 after the passing of her mother two years earlier, meaning that legally her stepfather’s blood relatives back in his native country of Barbados have a stronger legal claim to her childhood home than she.

The home was purchased by her mother and step-father in 1980 for $23,000. It is now worth over $1 million. When her mother died in 2009, her step-father continued as the sole owner of the property. When he died in 2011, without naming a beneficiary for the property, Massachusetts law allows his blood relatives to claim the house over Marcelle, a stepchild.

According to Marcelle and those close to the family, her stepfather, Noel Aimes, always wanted the house to stay in the family, and in the 1990s he built additions to accommodate his growing family.

Marcelle received the news in a letter delivered to her shortly before the end of last year. “Since you were not an heir-at-law, your appointment is in jeopardy of being set aside,” wrote the state public administrator. It appears that Mr. Aimes’s relatives in Barbados plan to sell the property as soon as the estate is settled. Marcelle is terrified and unsure where her family will live if forced out of the Cambridge property.

This story illustrates the importance of having a will. Without one, it doesn’t matter what you desire to happen with your assets. The laws of the state in which you reside will dictate the disposition of your assets. This is especially relevant in second-marriage situations. Marcelle’s stepfather may have wanted the property to pass on to her and her family, but without a will that said so, Massachusetts laws dictates it go to his distant relatives in Barbados. A sad outcome to be sure.

All it takes is a bit of planning to avoid disaster. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, hopefully what’s happening to Marcelle will motivate you to take action!

You can read the entire article here.

If your estate planning house isn’t in order, give me a call, I can help. While you won’t have to live with the oftentimes disastrous consequences of dying without an estate plan, your family will.

A Savior Is Born!

“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.’“

Luke 2: 8-14.

Merry Christmas!

Retirement Savers Get a Boost – IRA Contribution Limits Increased for 2019.

There is good news for those of you who are actively saving for retirement. The IRA contribution limit, presently $5,500 for 2018, will increase to $6,000 for 2019. If you are age 50 or older in 2019, you can add an additional $1,000 to your IRA, for a total contribution of $7,000 for 2019. The increase applies to both traditional and Roth IRAs. This increase applies to contributions for the 2019 tax year, not for contributions made in 2019 for the 2018 tax year.  Non-working spouses may also benefit by making contributions to their own IRAs to boost retirement savings.

The increase is the result of cost-of-living adjustments made recently by the IRS to retirement account limits. This increase is the first since 2013!

Don’t forget, other IRA eligibility rules still apply. You must have earned income to contribute to an IRA. Generally, earned income is income from employment. Investment income and Social Security income is excluded. Furthermore, there are income limits that will affect your ability to make a fully deductible contribution to a traditional IRA. Your income may be too high to contribute to a Roth IRA. Finally, you cannot make a contribution to a traditional IRA in 2019 if you will be age 70½ or older.

For those of you participating in an employer sponsored 401(k) or 403(b) plan, the limit for salary deferrals into those types of plans will go up to $19,000 in 2019 ($25,000 if you are age 50 or older).

You can see all of the COLA increases for retirement accounts and other retirement related items HERE.

Having trouble putting together a retirement plan, or looking for ways to boost retirement savings?  Give me a call, I can help.

Saving for College Off the FAFSA Radar

Many of my clients have a desire to incorporate a college savings component into their financial plans to help with their grandchildren’s college education expenses. In many cases, a 529 college savings account has already been set up for the grandchild by the parents, and the client would like to contribute to that account. Simple yes, but there is a better way.

First, any person who wants to save for a college education should consider using a 529 college savings plan. “529″ is the section of the Internal Revenue Code that makes tax-favored college savings accounts possible. Under section 529, funds contributed to a 529 account grow on a tax-deferred basis, and may be withdrawn tax-free if the funds are used to pay for qualified education expenses in the year the expenses are incurred.  “Qualified education expenses” include tuition, fees, books, supplies, and equipment required for the enrollment or attendance of the account beneficiary at an eligible educational institution (most colleges and universities, public or private).  A section 529 account may be set up by anyone who desires to save money for college expenses, including a grandparent for a grandchild.

A grandparent who sets up a 529 account for a grandchild gets the tax-advantaged savings, but there’s another benefit for the grandchild: Funds in a 529 account established by a grandparent will not affect the grandchild’s eligibility for student loans, grants, work/study programs, and even scholarships.

The vast majority of college bound students must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (“FAFSA”). The FAFSA identifies those assets that will be taken into account to determine a student’s financial aid eligibility. Financial aid eligibility is typically determined from the student and parents’ income and assets disclosed on the FAFSA (including 529 accounts established by the parent or student). Money contributed by a grandparent to a 529 account in the student’s name or in the parent’s name will be counted against the grandchild on the FAFSA.  Thus, the grandchild is penalized for the grandparent’s generosity.

However, the student’s FAFSA does not consider the assets of a grandparent. So, a grandparent may establish a 529 account in their name for a grandchild and the account is not reported on the grandchild’s FAFSA. The grandparent is able to put money away for a grandchild’s college education, without penalizing the grandchild.   In addition, the grandparent still controls the funds in the account. If the grandchild decides to not go to college or she receives substantial scholarship awards, the grandparent may substitute out one grandchild for another as the account beneficiary.

Each state must set up its own section 529 program, and nearly all the states have done so. But you can establish a 529 account in any state, not just the state of your residence. These programs are state-specific, and they have differing contribution limits, investment options, and costs. Some states (including Michigan) offer income tax benefits for their residents who use the Michigan 529 plan. So it pays to research carefully before opening a 529 account.

Are you thinking about setting aside money for your child or grandchild’s college education? Give me a call, I can help.