The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 was passed by Congress and signed into law at the end of 2019. The SECURE Act, as it’s known, represents the most sweeping set of changes to retirement legislation in more than a decade. It has several benefits for American retirees—and some drawbacks as well.
First, a couple things to note:
All changes apply after Jan. 1, 2020. So, the quickest this would touch you is on your taxes filed in April 2021.
The Internal Revenue Service will issue rules guiding enforcement of the new elements of this bill. Those rules will come out over the coming months. Consult with your tax advisor as the year unfolds to learn how these changes will impact your financial plan.
All provisions take effect on or after Jan. 1, 2020, unless otherwise noted.
Elimination of the “stretch IRA”
Probably the change touching most individuals is the elimination of a strategy called the “stretch IRA” that allowed non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit traditional IRA and retirement plan assets to spread distributions, and the income tax bills attached to the distributions, over their lifetimes.
The new law generally requires any beneficiary who is more than 10 years younger than the account owner to liquidate the account within 10 years of the account owner’s death unless the beneficiary is a spouse, a disabled or chronically ill individual, or a minor child. This shorter maximum distribution period could result in unanticipated tax bills for beneficiaries who stand to inherit high-value traditional IRAs. This is also true for IRA trust beneficiaries, which may affect estate plans that intended to use trusts to manage inherited IRA assets.
In addition to possibly reevaluating beneficiary choices, traditional IRA owners may want to revisit how IRA dollars fit into their overall estate planning strategy. For example, it may make sense to convert traditional IRA funds to Roth IRAs, which can be inherited income tax free. Although Roth IRA conversions are taxable events, investors who spread out a series of conversions over the next several years may benefit from the lower income tax rates that are set to expire in 2026.
Benefits to individuals
On the plus side, the SECURE Act includes several provisions designed to benefit American workers and retirees.
- People who choose to work beyond traditional retirement age will be able to contribute to traditional IRAs beyond age 70½. Previous laws prevented such contributions.
- Retirees will no longer have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from traditional IRAs and retirement plans by April 1 following the year in which they turn 70½. The new law generally requires RMDs to begin by April 1 following the year in which they turn age 72.
- Part-time workers age 21 and older who log at least 500 hours in three consecutive years generally must be allowed to participate in company retirement plans offering a qualified cash or deferred arrangement. The previous requirement was 1,000 hours and one year of service. (The new rule applies to plan years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2021.)
- Workers will begin to receive annual statements from their employers estimating how much their retirement plan assets are worth, expressed as monthly income received over a lifetime. This should help workers better gauge progress toward meeting their retirement income goals.
- New laws make it easier for employers to offer lifetime income annuities within retirement plans. Such products can help workers plan for a predictable stream of income in retirement. In addition, lifetime income investments or annuities held within a plan that discontinues such investments can be directly transferred to another retirement plan, avoiding potential surrender charges and fees that may otherwise apply.
- Individuals can now take penalty-free early withdrawals of up to $5,000 from their qualified plans and IRAs due to the birth or adoption of a child. (Regular income taxes will still apply, so new parents may want to proceed with caution.)
- Taxpayers with high medical bills may be able to deduct unreimbursed expenses that exceed 7.5 percent (in 2019 and 2020) of their adjusted gross income. In addition, individuals may withdraw money from their qualified retirement plans and IRAs penalty-free to cover expenses that exceed this threshold (although regular income taxes will apply). The threshold returns to 10 percent in 2021.
- 529 account assets can now be used to pay for student loan repayments ($10,000 lifetime maximum) and costs associated with registered apprenticeships.
Benefits to employers
The SECURE Act also provides assistance to employers striving to provide quality retirement savings opportunities to their workers. Among the changes are the following:
- The tax credit that small businesses can take for starting a new retirement plan has increased to a maximum of $5,000. The new rule allows employers to take a credit equal to the greater of (1) $500 or (2) the lesser of (a) $250 times the number of non-highly compensated eligible employees or (b) $5,000. The credit applies for up to three years. The previous maximum credit amount allowed was 50 percent of startup costs up to a maximum of $1,000 (i.e., a maximum credit of $500).
- A new tax credit of up to $500 is available for employers that launch a SIMPLE IRA or 401(k) plan with automatic enrollment. The credit applies for three years.
- With regards to the new mandate to permit certain part-timers to participate in retirement plans, employers may exclude such employees for nondiscrimination testing purposes.
- Employers now have easier access to join multiple employer plans (MEPs) regardless of industry, geographic location, or affiliation. Open MEPs, as they have become known, offer economies of scale, allowing small employers access to the types of pricing models and other benefits typically reserved for large organizations. (Previously, groups of small businesses had to be affiliated somehow in order to join an MEP.) The legislation also provides that the failure of one employer in an MEP to meet plan requirements will not cause others to fail, and that plan assets in the failed plan will be transferred to another. (This rule is effective for plan years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2021.)
- Auto-enrollment safe harbor plans may automatically increase participant contributions until they reach 15 percent of salary. The previous ceiling was 10 percent.
If you are curious about how these changes impact your financial plan, you may want to talk with an experienced, well-trained, fiduciary financial planner like a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional.
To find a CFP® professional near you, start your search here. The link will take you to CFP®s in your area.
As you visit with financial planners, I suggest a couple things to check:
- Is the advisor always the client’s advocate – a fiduciary advisor?
- Is the advisor only paid by clients, not any financial product manufacturer or distribution network? That would be a fee-only advisor.
These two points help assure that you are working with a professional who is committed to your best interest at all times. It seems sort of obvious to me that a professional would work in this way, but it’s not automatic.
A fiduciary, fee-only, CFP® professional can help you make great retirement income choices and develop a holistic financial plan that is driven by your goals and priorities and addresses all aspects of your financial life. With a big-picture approach, you will be better prepared to understand your options at every step along the way.
Yes, I am a CFP® professional. I’m always a fiduciary and I only work on a fee basis. And yes, I’m still taking on a few great families to be part of my financial planning practice.
If this article has you thinking about your own circumstances, contact my office at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am always happy to meet with people who are working on their retirement plans. Dunncreek Advisors does not provide legal or tax advice, nor is this article intended to do so.