7 Strategies If The Stretch IRA is Eliminated

On May 31, I sent a newsletter about US House of Representatives approving the SECURE Act and six changes it would create for retirement plans. To pay for the cost of new rules, like extending the RMD age from 70 1/2 to 72, the legislation proposes to eliminate the Stretch IRA starting in 2020. While the Senate has yet to finalize their own version of this legislation, odds are good that something is going to get passed. And if the Stretch IRA manages to survive this time, it will likely be back on the chopping block in the near future.

A Stretch IRA, also known as an Inherited IRA or Beneficiary IRA, allows the beneficiary of an IRA to continue to enjoy the tax-deferred growth of the IRA and only take relatively small Required Minimum Distributions over their lifetime. Congress has recognized that while they want to encourage people to contribute to IRAs to save for their retirement, they’re not as happy about the IRAs being used as an Estate Planning tool.

If you have a large IRA, one million or more, you might have more in assets than you will need to spend. If you leave it to your spouse, they can still roll it into their own IRA and treat it as their own. Once the Stretch IRA is eliminated, and you leave the IRA to someone other than a spouse, they will have to withdraw the entire IRA within 10 years. Those distributions will be treated as ordinary income and there could be substantial taxes on a seven-figure IRA.

Now is the time to start planning for the end of the Stretch IRA. There are ways that could potentially save many thousands in taxes on a million dollar IRA. But these methods may take years to work, so it pays to start early. Here are seven considerations:

1. Charitable Beneficiary. If you are planning to leave money to a charity (a church, arts organization, university, or other charity), make that bequest through your IRA rather than from your taxable estate. The charity will receive the full amount and as a tax-exempt organization, not owe any taxes on the distribution. It will be much more tax efficient to leave taxable assets to individual beneficiaries and IRA assets to charities than the reverse.

2. QCD. Better than waiting until you pass away, you can donate up to $100,000 a year in Qualified Charitable Distributions after age 70 1/2 that count towards your RMD. This reduces your IRA but preserves a tax benefit today, which is even better than leaving it as an inheritance. Plus you get to see the good your donation can make while you are still alive. (And you don’t have to itemize your tax return; the QCD is an above the line deduction.)

3. Start withdrawals at age 59 1/2. The traditional approach to IRAs was to avoid touching them until you hit 70 1/2 and had to start RMDs. With today’s lower tax brackets, if you have a very large IRA, it may be preferable to start distributions as early as 59 1/2 and save that money in a taxable account.

For a married couple, the 24% tax bracket goes all the way up to $321,450 (2019). Those rates are set to sunset after 2025. Additionally, while any future growth in an IRA will eventually be taxed as ordinary income, IRA money that is withdrawn and invested in ETFs now will become eligible for the preferential long-term capital gains rate of 15%. Your future growth is now at a lower tax rate outside the IRA.

4. If you’re going to take annual distributions and pay the tax gradually, an even better way is through Roth Conversions. Once in the Roth, you will pay no tax on future growth and you heirs can receive the Roth accounts income tax-free. Conversions don’t count as part of your RMD, so the best time to do this may be between 59 1/2 and 70 1/2. Look at gradually making partial conversions that keep you within a lower tax bracket.

5. A lot of owners of large IRAs want to leave their IRA to a Trust to make sure the funds are not squandered, mismanaged, or taken by a child’s spouse. Unfortunately, Trust taxes are very high. In fact, Trusts reach the top tax rate of 37% once they hit just $12,750 in taxable income. In the past, trust beneficiaries were able to still use the Stretch IRA rules even with a Trust. However, if the Stretch IRA is eliminated, most of these IRA Trusts are going to pay an egregious amount of taxes.

One alternative is to establish a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This would allow for annual income to be provided to your beneficiaries just like from a Stretch IRA, but once that beneficiary passes away, the remainder is donated to a charity. This preserves significant tax benefits as the initial IRA distribution to the CRT is non-taxable. The downside is that there are no lump sum options and the payments will not continue past the one generation named as beneficiaries. 

Still, if you have a Trust established as the beneficiary of your IRA, you will want to revisit this choice very carefully if the Stretch IRA is eliminated.

6. Life Insurance. I usually recommend Term Insurance, but there is a place for permanent life insurance in estate planning. If the Stretch IRA is repealed, it may be more efficient to use your IRA to pay for $1 million in life insurance than to try to pass on a $1 million IRA. Life insurance proceeds are received income tax-free by the beneficiary.

For example, a healthy 70 year old male could purchase a Guaranteed Universal Life Policy with a $1 million death benefit for as little as $24,820.40 a year. Take the RMD from your $1 million IRA and use that to pay the life insurance premiums. Now your heirs will receive a $1 million life insurance policy (tax-free) in addition to your $1 million IRA. This policy and rate are guaranteed through age 100. If you don’t need income from your IRA, this could greatly increase the after-tax money received by your heirs. 

7. If you are an unmarried couple, you might want to consider if it would be beneficial to be married so that one spouse could inherit the other’s IRA and be able to treat it as their own.

The elimination of the Stretch IRA has been proposed repeatedly since 2012. In some ways, its repeal is a new inheritance tax. Billionaires typically have little or insignificant IRA assets compared to the rest of their wealth and have access to complex trust and legal structures. However, working professionals who have diligently created a net worth of $1 to 4 million, likely have a substantial amount of their wealth in their retirement accounts. And these are the families who will be impacted the most by the elimination of the Stretch IRA.

If you are planning on leaving a substantial retirement account to your beneficiaries, let’s talk about your specific situation and consider what course of action might be best for you. 

5 Retirement Strategies for 2015

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For 2015, the IRS has announced that contribution limits will increase for a number of retirement plan types.  For 401(k) and 403(b) plans, the annual contribution limit has been increased from $17,500 to $18,000.  The catch-up amount for investors over age 50 has increased from $5,500 to $6,000, so the new effective limit for participants over 50 is now $24,000. Be sure to contact your HR department to increase your withholding in January, if you are able to afford the higher amount.

Traditional and Roth IRA contribution limits will remain at $5,500, or $6,500 if over age 50.  SIMPLE IRA participants will see a bump from $12,000 to $12,500, and SEP IRA contribution limits are increased from $52,000 to $53,000 for 2015.

If you’re not sure where to start, here are my five recommendations, in order, for funding retirement accounts.

1) Choose the Traditional Plan 

More and more employers offer Roth options in their 401(k) plans, but I believe the most investors are better off in the traditional, pre-tax plan.  The only way the Roth is preferable is if your marginal tax rate is higher in retirement than it is today. The reality is that your income will probably be lower in retirement than when you are working.  Even if your income remains the same 20 years from now, it is likely that tax-brackets will have shifted up for inflation and you may be in a lower tax rate.  Lastly, there has been continued talk of tax simplification, which would reduce tax breaks and potentially lower marginal tax rates, which would also be negative for Roth holders. So, my advice is to take the tax break today and stick with the pre-tax, regular 401(k).

 2) Maximize Employer Plan Contributions

Your first course of action will always be to maximize your contributions to your employer plan.  Many individuals do this, but I’m surprised that with many couples, the lower paid spouse often does not.  If you’re being taxed jointly, every dollar contributed reduces your taxes at your marginal rate. And don’t forget that since 2013, on income over $250,000, couples are subject to an additional 0.9% tax on Earned Income and an additional 3.8% on Investment Income to provide additional revenue to Medicare.  Add the 3.8% Medicare Tax to the top rate of 39.6%, and you could be paying as much as 43.4% tax on your investment income.  That’s a big incentive to maximize your pre-tax contributions as much as you can.

 3) Traditional IRA, if deductible

If you maximize your employer contributions for 2015, and are able to do more, here is your next step: If your modified adjusted gross income is under $61,000 single ($98,000 married), then you can also contribute to a Traditional IRA and deduct your contribution.  If your spouse is covered by an employer plan but you are not, the income limit is $183,000. This opportunity is frequently missed by couples, especially when one spouse does not work outside the home.

And of course, if neither spouse is covered by an employer retirement plan, both can contribute to a deductible Traditional IRA, without any income restrictions.

 4) Roth IRA

If you make above the amounts in step 2, but under $116,000 single, or $183,000 joint, you are eligible to contribute to a Roth IRA.  If your income is above these amounts, you would not be eligible to directly contribute to a Roth IRA.  However, if either spouse does not have a Traditional IRA (including SEP or SIMPLE), he or she would be able to fund a “Back-Door Roth IRA”.  This is done by contributing to a non-deductible IRA and then immediately converting to a Roth.  Since there are no gains on the conversion, the event creates no tax.

 5) Self Employment 

If you have any 1099 income, are self-employed, or work as an independent contractor, you would also be able to contribute to a SEP IRA in addition to funding a 401(k).  You can contribute to both accounts, subject to a combined limit of $53,000, if you have both W-2 and 1099 Income.

One option I’ve not seen discussed often is that someone who is self-employed could also fund a SEP and convert it to a Roth.  If you don’t have any other Traditional IRAs, this could, in theory, be used to fund a Roth with up to $53,000 a year. The conversion would be a taxable event, but it would be cancelled out by the deduction for the SEP contribution.

There are quite a few variations and details in terms of eligibility for each family.  Want to make sure you’re taking advantage of every opportunity you can?  Give me a call to schedule your free planning meeting.