Is Extending Required Minimum Distributions a Good Thing?

Required Minimum Distribution
The first SECURE Act extended the beginning date for taking required minimum distributions from the year after the account owner reaches age 70½ until they reach age 72. Just three years later, ‘SECURE Act 2.0’ has extended this age to 73, and offers a further provision for extending it again, to age 75, beginning in 2033.

The question is, are these extensions a good thing, or a trap for people who aren’t up on the latest rules? A key concept is the difference in how couples and singles are taxed. The income level at which singles reach tax bracket thresholds is half that of married people filing jointly, explains a recent article titled “Are Extended RMDs A Gold Mine Or Tax Trap?” from Financial Advisor.

For example, a retired couple reaches 70½ this year. They’ll have an RMD of $89,450 from their combined $2 million plus in IRAs. They also receive $27,700 in interest and dividend income during the year—exactly equal to the standard deduction for a married couple filing jointly. The federal income tax liability would be $10,294 (not including taxes on Social Security benefits).

Let’s say they opt not to withdraw the $89,450 during 2023. Instead, they wait and one of the spouses dies. The surviving spouse then withdraws $89,450 as a widow. The survivor’s federal income tax liability on the same amount becomes $18,192, or almost 77% higher than if both spouses were still living. The “single filer” penalty is an issue.

What’s more, the children of our example are likely to face a higher income tax rate on what’s left in their parents’ IRA when both pass away. They are likely to be in their peak earnings years at that point and have only ten years at most to take the entire payout after their parents die.

Finally, if the married couple takes IRA withdrawals earlier rather than later, they’ll see a step-up in basis for all the after-tax funds they’ve allowed to appreciate for the rest of their lives. This eliminates all income tax on the appreciation. This is an important income tax benefit you don’t get from IRA receipts after the death of the account owner. Perhaps this is what Congress had in mind when it extended the starting date for RMDs not once, but three times.

It could be argued that singles, including surviving spouses, will see IRAs grow more if they put off distribution even longer. However, eventually bigger amounts may push individuals or families into a higher income tax bracket later on, and the undistributed IRA would not get a step-up in income tax basis on the death of the original owners. The undistributed IRA amount also can’t be rolled into a Roth IRA.

Tax brackets strategies can be improved if the couple takes withdrawals before they turn 70 ½, as long as they are retired and not in a high-income tax bracket. By taking increasing RMDs later in life, it’s possible to increase the federal income tax bracket, and risk triggering the single-filer penalty on the widowed spouse.

Estate planning for the SECURE Act means if you haven’t had your estate plan reviewed in the last two or three years, it’s time to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney. These changes in the law may create new opportunities, or your existing estate plan may not be properly structured to address the changes brought about by Congress.

Reference: Financial Advisor (March 1, 2023) “Are Extended RMDs A Gold Mine Or Tax Trap?”