Under current law, when an heir inherits a Roth IRA or an IRA from someone who has not yet begun receiving minimum distributions, he or she must make a choice. The money must be distributed either within five years or over the heir’s lifetime. For lifelong distributions, the heir will need to withdraw a minimum amount each year based upon IRS life expectancy tables. This strategy is referred to by estate planners as a “stretch IRA.”
For a young heir, such as a child or grandchild, stretching payments over a lifetime, maximizing the period of tax deferral or tax freedom, can make an enormous difference in the total value of this financial resource. That’s because in the early years the required minimum distributions are likely to be less than the growth in the value of the account, which allows for additional tax-free or tax-deferred accumulations.
Writing in Trust & Estates magazine (June 2017), James Lange explores the alternatives for a 46-year-old heir who inherits a $1 million traditional IRA. Assuming a 7% rate of return, if the child takes only the minimum distributions for life the account will peak at about $2.7 million at age 76, and it will be worth $2.5 million at age 82. On the other hand, if the account is fully distributed within five years and subjected to ordinary income taxes, and the proceeds are placed in a taxable portfolio, the same pattern of withdrawals will exhaust the account at age 82.
Too Good to Last?
Lange’s article is titled “The Latest Developments in the Death of the Stretch IRA.” There hasn’t been much press attention to the issue, but last year the Senate Finance Committee voted unanimously for the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act of 2016. One critical “enhancement” was the elimination of the vast majority of stretch IRAs in the future.
Under the bill, nearly everyone will have to abide by the five-year rule for inherited IRAs and lump sum death benefits from qualified retirement plans. There are exceptions for surviving spouses and disabled dependents, for whom lifelong distributions would be permitted. If a beneficiary is a minor, the five-year distribution rule would not kick in until he or she reaches the age of majority. There are also exceptions for charities, charitable remainder trusts, and beneficiaries who were born within 10 years of the account owner.
Nothing Can Be Simple
The bill also carves out the first $450,000 in IRA assets from the application of the five-year rule. Therefore, a new wrinkle will be added to estate planning.
In estates in which combined IRA balances are less than $450,000, no change of plans will be needed (assuming that the exclusion isn’t changed in final legislation). Estates with larger IRAs may need to be reviewed and new plans devised, if the new rules are adopted.
Lange makes much of the fact that, given the unanimous vote, the elimination of the stretch IRA has bipartisan support. On the other hand, the bill died last year, and it has not be reintroduced as of this writing. Will there be tax reform this year? One of the difficulties of developing a consensus for a tax reform bill is the need to “pay for” tax cuts with other tax increases, so as to stem the revenue loss. The stretch IRA is a low-hanging fruit that looks ripe for harvest by eliminating it. The Joint Committee on Taxation scored the provision as raising $3.8 billion over the next ten years. But if tax reform bogs down, and gets pushed into 2018 (at this moment, the most likely outcome), the stretch IRA remains safe for another year or so.
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