COVID-19

Coronavirus Stimulus Allows Retirees to Tap Funds Early, With Little or No Penalties

For a limited time, Americans will now be able to withdraw money from tax-deferred accounts without penalties, under the Coronavirus Stimulus law. Rules on taking loans from 401(k)s will also be loosened up, and some retirees will be able to avoid Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that otherwise would have been costly, says the article “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early” from the Los Angeles Times.

In some cases, these changes reflect what has been done for retirement savers in previous disasters. However, for the most part, these are more intense than in other events. The chief government affairs officer of the American Retirement Association, Will Hansen, says that we are now in uncharted territory as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The numbers of people filing for unemployment make it likely that many people will be tapping their retirement accounts.

One provision in the bill would allow investors of any age to take as much as $100,000 from their retirement accounts without any early withdrawal penalties. If the money is put back in the account within three years, there won’t be any taxes due. If the money is not put back, taxes can be paid over the course of three years. The law says that the money must be a “coronavirus-related distribution,” but the rules are loose.

People who test positive for the virus, along with anyone who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of the pandemic, including being unable to find work or childcare, are permitted to make these withdrawals.

The bill also makes it easier to borrow money from 401(k) accounts, raising the limit on these loans from $50,000 to $100,000. The payment dates for any loans due in 2020 are extended for a year.

Retirees in their early 70s were previously required to start taking money out of tax-deferred accounts and start paying taxes on those distributions. The bill also waives these rules.

U.S. individual retirement accounts held nearly $20 trillion in assets at the end of 2019. While those amounts have certainly dropped due to market volatility, Americans still hold a lot of money in retirement accounts.

However, pre- and post-retirees need to think carefully about withdrawing large sums of money now. For pre-retirees, this should only be a last resort. Some professionals think the 401(k)-loan amount is too high and that people will jump to take out too much money, which will never find its way back.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2019, Americans ages 25-55 take approximately $69 billion a year from their retirement accounts. Once the money is gone, it’s not able to earn future tax-deferred returns.

Reference: Los Angeles Times (March 27, 2020) “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early”

Requests for Estate Plans Reflect Fears about Coronavirus

Estate planning lawyers have always known that estate planning is not about “if,” but about “when.” The current health pandemic has given many people a wake-up call. They realize there’s no time to procrastinate, reports the article “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes” from InsuranceNews.net. Legal professionals urge everyone, not just the elderly or the wealthy, to put their end-of-life plans in writing.

The last time estate planning attorneys saw this type of surge was in 2012, when wealthy people were worried that Congress was about to lower the threshold of the estate tax. Today, everyone is worried.

Top priorities are creating a living will stating your wishes if you become incapacitated, designating a surrogate or a proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf and granting power of attorney to someone who can make legal and financial decisions.

An estate plan, including a last will and testament (and often trusts) that detail what you want to happen to assets and who will be guardian to minor children upon your death, spares your family legal costs, family disagreements and hours in court that can result when there is no estate plan.

The coronavirus has created a new problem for families. In the past, a health care surrogate would be in the hospital with you, talking to healthcare providers and making decisions on your behalf. However, now there are no visitors allowed in hospitals and patients are completely isolated. Estate planning attorneys are recommending that specific language be added to any end of life documents that authorize a surrogate to give instructions by phone, email or during an online conference.

Any prior documents that may have prohibited intubation need to be revised, since intubation is part of treatment for COVID-19 and not necessarily just an end-of-life stage.

Attorneys are finding ways to ensure that documents are properly witnessed and signed. In some states, remote signings are being permitted, while other states, Florida in particular, still require two in-person witnesses, when a will or other estate planning documents are being signed.

There are many stories of people who have put off having their wills prepared, figuring out succession plans that usually take years to plan and people coming to terms with what they want to happen to their assets.

Equally concerning are seniors in nursing homes who have not reviewed their wills in many years and are not able to make changes now. Older adults and relatives are struggling with awkward and urgent circumstances, when they are confined to nursing homes or senior communities with no visitors.

Reference: InsuranceNews.net (April 3, 2020) “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes”

The Coronavirus and Estate Planning

As Americans adjust to a changing public health landscape and historical changes to the economy, certain opportunities in wealth planning are becoming more valuable, according to the article “Impact of COVID-19 on Estate Planning” from The National Law Review. Here is a look at some strategies for estate plans:

Basic estate planning. Now is the time to review current estate planning documents to be sure they are all up to date. That includes wills, trusts, revocable trusts, powers of attorney, beneficiary designations and health care directives. Also be sure that you and family members know where they are located.

Wealth Transfer Strategies. The extreme volatility of financial markets, depressed asset values,and historically low interest rates present opportunities to transfer wealth to intended beneficiaries. Here are a few to consider:

Intra-Family Transactions. In a low interest rate environment, planning techniques involve intra-family transactions where the senior members of the family lend or sell assets to younger family members. The loaned or sold assets only need to appreciate at a rate greater than the interest rate charged. In these cases, the value of the assets remaining in senior family member’s estate will be frozen at the loan/purchase price. The value of the loaned or sold assets will be based on a fair market value valuation, which may include discounts for certain factors. The fair market value of many assets will be extremely depressed and discounted. When asset values rebound, all that appreciation will be outside of the taxable estate and will be held by or for the benefit of your intended beneficiaries, tax free.

Charitable Lead Annuity Trusts. Known as “CLATs,” they are similar to a GRAT, where the Grantor transfers assets to a trust and a named charity gets an annuity stream for a set term of years. At the end of that term, the assets in the trust pass to the beneficiaries. You can structure this so the balance of the assets passes to heirs transfer-tax free.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about these and other wealth transfer strategies to learn if they are right for you and your family. And stay well!

Reference: The National Law Journal (March 13, 2020) “Impact of COVID-19 on Estate Planning”

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