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.

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.