Using Retirement Funds in a Financial Crisis

For generations, the tax code has been a public policy tool, used to encourage people to save for retirement and what used to be called “old age.” However, the coronavirus pandemic has created financial emergencies for so many households that lawmakers have responded by making it easier to tap these accounts. The article “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes” from The Wall Street Journal asks if this is really a good idea.

This shift in thinking actually coincides with trends that began to emerge before the last recession. People were living and working longer. Unemployment and career changes later in life were becoming more commonplace, and fewer and fewer people devoted four decades to working for a single employer, before retiring with an employer-funded pension.

For those who have been affected by the economic downturns of the coronavirus, withdrawals up to $100,000 from retirement savings accounts are now allowed, with no early-withdrawal penalty. That includes IRAs (Individual Retirement Accounts) or employment-linked 401(k) plans. In addition, $100,000 may be borrowed from 401(k) plans.

Americans are not alone in this. Australia and Malaysia are also allowing citizens to take money from retirement accounts.

Lawmakers are hoping that putting money into pockets now may help households prevent foreclosures, evictions and bankruptcies, with less of an impact on government spending. With trillions in retirement accounts in the U.S., these accounts are where legislators frequently look when resources are threatened.

However, there’s a tradeoff. If you take out money from accounts that have lost value because of the market’s volatility, those losses are not likely to be recouped. And if money is taken out and not replaced when the world returns to work, there will be less money during retirement. Not only will you miss out on the money you took out, but on the return, it might have made through years of tax-advantaged investments.

The danger is that if retirement accounts are widely seen as accessible and necessary now, a return to saving for retirement or the possibility of putting money back into these accounts when the economy returns to normal may not happen.

IRA and 401(k) accounts began to supplant pensions in the 1970s as a way to encourage people to save for retirement, by deferring income tax on money that was saved. By the end of 2019, IRAs and 401(k) types of accounts held about $20 trillion in the US.

Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research has estimated that even before the coronavirus, early withdrawals were reducing retirement accounts by a quarter over 30 years, taking into account the lost returns on savings that were no longer in the accounts. For many people, taking retirement funds now may be their only choice, but the risk to their financial future and retirement is very real.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 4, 2020) “Should You Tap Retirement Funds in a Crisis? Increasingly, People Say Yes”

Massive Changes to RMDs from Stimulus Plan

Several of the provisions that were signed into law in the relief bill can taken advantage of immediately, reports Financial Planning in the article “Major changes in RMDs and retirement contributions in $2T stimulus plan.” Here are some highlights.

Extended deadline for 2019 IRA contributions. With the tax return filing date extended to July 15, 2020 from April 16, the date for making 2019 contributions to IRA and Roth IRA contributions has also been extended to the same date. Those contributions normally must be made by April 15 of the following year, but this is no normal year. There have never been extensions to the April 15 deadline, even when taxpayers filed for extensions.

When this tax return deadline was extended, most financial professionals doubted the extension would only apply to IRA contributions, but the IRS responded in a timely manner, issuing guidance titled “Filing and Payment Deadlines Questions and Answers.” These changes give taxpayers more time to decide if they still want to contribute, and how much. Job losses and market downturns that accompanied the COVID-19 outbreak have changed the retirement savings priorities for many Americans. Just be sure when you do make a contribution to your account, note that it is for 2019 because financial custodians may just automatically consider it for 2020. A phone call to confirm will likely be in order.

RMDs are waived for 2020. As a result of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARE Act), Required Minimum Distributions from IRAs are waived. Prior to the law’s passage, 2020 RMDs would be very high, as they would be based on the substantially higher account values of December 31, 2019. If not for this relief, IRA owners would have to withdraw and pay tax on a much larger percentage of their IRA balances. By eliminating the RMD for 2020, tax bills will be lower for those who don’t need to take the money from their accounts. For 2019 RMDs not yet taken, the waiver still applies. It also applies to IRA owners who turned 70 ½ in 2019. This was a surprise, as the SECURE Act just increased the RMD age to 72 for those who turn 70 ½ in 2020 or later.

IRA beneficiaries subject to the five- year rule. Another group benefitting from these the rules are beneficiaries who inherited in 2015 or later and are subject to the 5-year payout rule. Those beneficiaries may have inherited through a will or were beneficiaries of a trust that didn’t qualify as a designated beneficiary. They now have one more year—until December 31, 2021—to withdraw the entire amount in the account. Beneficiaries who inherited from 2015-2020 now have six years, instead of five.

Additional relief for retirement accounts. The new act also waives the early 10% early distribution penalty on up to $100,000 of 2020 distributions from IRAs and company plans for ‘affected individuals.’ The tax will still be due, but it can be spread over three years and the funds may be repaid over the three-year period.

Many changes have been implemented from the new legislation. Speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure that you are taking full advantage of the changes and not running afoul of any new or old laws regarding retirement accounts.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 27, 2020) “Major changes in RMDs and retirement contributions in $2T stimulus plan”

Gray Divorces Changing the Future for Many Senior Americans

Add “gray divorce” to the factors leading to strife in estate planning. Minimizing discord among beneficiaries is one of the top three reasons people decide to have estate plans created, but with more gray divorces, things become complicated.

A survey at the 54th Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning conducted by TD Bank asked elder law attorneys, insurance advisors, wealth managers and other professionals on the biggest challenge to estate planning. An article in the Clare County Review titled “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated” explains the problem, and presents some solutions.

Gray divorce, blended families, naming heirs and changing family structures are making it more complicated—and more necessary—to create an estate plan and review it with an estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

More than a third of the 112 professionals participating in the survey said that gray divorce has the biggest impact on retirement planning and funding. It also impacts naming who becomes a person’s power of attorney and how Social Security benefits are determined.

The biggest way to help avoid family conflict in a gray divorce is the same as in any other divorce: regular communication. The family members need to know what is being planned, including who will be the designated beneficiaries and who will be named as executor.

The divorce process is complicated at any age, but after 50, there are usually more assets involved. The spouse is usually listed as the beneficiary on most, if not all, assets. Each asset document must be changed to reflect the new beneficiaries. Dividing pension plans, IRAs, and other retirement funds entails more work than simply changing names on bank accounts (although that also has to happen).

Wills, trusts, life insurance, and titles on real estate must also be changed. Institutions and companies that have accounts must be contacted, with information updated and verified.

Trusts are growing in popularity as a means of leaving assets to heirs, since they can minimize costs and delays when property is transferred. Trusts make it easier to pass assets, if family conflict is expected.

Even when beneficiaries aren’t expecting any cash assets to be left to them, controversies can still erupt over other assets. Adult children may not care about IRAs or trusts, but often the family home has great sentimental value. Deciding what to do with it can lead to fighting among siblings.

For those considering a gray divorce, talking with an estate planning attorney, in addition to a matrimonial attorney, could make this large life change less stressful. The estate planning attorney will be able to work with the matrimonial attorney, to ensure that estate issues are handled properly.

Reference: Clare County Review (February 10, 2020) “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated”