January 13, 2021
Dear WZ Clients, Business Associates and Friends,
SECURE ACT ALLOWS FOR QUALIFIED RETIREMENT PLANS TO BE SET UP IN 2021 FOR 2020
SECURE ACT ALLOWS FOR QUALIFIED RETIREMENT PLANS TO BE SET UP IN 2021 FOR 2020
About one million Americans file for personal bankruptcy each year, with one in 10 households having filed at some point. Given the loss of jobs, reduced income, and the coronavirus recession in 2020, those numbers could increase this year if the economic recovery is not both swift and omnipresent.
There are two main types of personal bankruptcy: Chapter 7 and Chapter 13. Chapter 7, which is the more common option, will liquidate the filer’s assets in order to discharge all or a portion of the outstanding debt. People generally choose this route because they are in way over their heads and do not earn enough income to pay their debts in any type of normal time frame.
Chapter 13, on the other hand, provides some immediate breathing room while helping the filer develop a payment plan based on a reduced percentage of the debt. This percentage is determined by how much he makes and what he can feasibly pay each month. While a Chapter 7 bankruptcy remains on your credit report for 10 years, while Chapter 13 bankruptcy is a bit less punitive staying on record for only seven years. As the filer works to pay down his debt and sticks to his plan, his credit score will gradually improve over time. In some cases, the debtor may be able to apply for an FHA, VA, or USDA home loan a year after his bankruptcy filing, or two to four years if applying for a conventional mortgage.
Bankruptcy can provide immediate relief from creditors calling and threatening to evict, foreclose, repossess, shut off, or garnish wages. However, be prepared for some level of pain, such as the bankruptcy court seizing property to be sold to pay your creditors, and/or your credit cards being canceled.
You may see television ads to get debt relief without having to file bankruptcy. Be aware that while these programs may negotiate a debt settlement to something you can better afford, they will not skirt the wrath of the dreaded credit rating agencies. Any time an entity negotiates a reduction in your debt, this will show up as a negative factor on your credit score, and will likely remain that way for many years. A more recent issue that not everyone is aware of is that some employers have started checking the credit reports of job applicants. This makes it all the more difficult to pay off your debt if you can’t get a job because of your past payment history. Your best option is to secure a reliable income before you work with a debt relief agency or file for bankruptcy.
Before entering any type of debt relief program, it’s a good idea to consult with a qualified, non-profit credit counseling agency for a free debt analysis. Don’t go to just anyone; make sure it is a legitimate resource which, by law, is required to serve your best interest. Shady debt counseling vendors are inclined to recommend a debt solution that works out better for the agency than their clients.
If you do decide to file for bankruptcy, be aware that court fees cost about $300, plus lawyer fees tend to run between $1,000 and $3,000 for a Chapter 7 filing and approximately $3,000 to $6,000 for a Chapter 13 filing.
The Social Security Administration recently announced 2021 increases to both benefits and the taxable wage base for FICA taxes.
Increases Announced for 2021
Workers are facing a 3.7 percent increase in the taxable wage base subject to Social Security taxes, increasing the amount from $137,700 up to $142,800. This means high earners who make as much as or more than the taxable wage base will pay $8,853.60 of the employee withholding portion or $17,707.20 in total for the self-employed – who pay both employee and employer portions of the tax.
Retirees receiving benefits will only garner a 1.3 percent cost-of-living (COLA) raise in 2021, resulting in a raise of $20 per month for the average single beneficiary and $33 per month for the average retired couple. COLA increases for beneficiaries have been low for a long time, with several years seeing zero increases in the past decade or so. You can see the historic trend of COLA increases in the chart below, going back to 1975.
|Historical Social Security COLA Increases1|
Medical Expenses Outpacing COLA increases
Low COLA increases are putting pressure on retirees’ finances as medical expenses are rising at a much faster pace, with some believing they are given too little weight in the COLA calculation. Moreover, retirees need to consider Medicare Part B and Part D premiums.
While the official 2021 premiums are not announced yet, there are estimates out there that Part B premiums (covering doctor and outpatient services) will raise $9 per month, or approximately 6.2% percent, from $144.30 to $153.30. These are just average figures, as there are income-related surcharges that apply to both Part B and Part D drug premiums. During 2020, for example, individuals making more than $87k per year and couples filing jointly making over $174k per year began paying higher premiums for Part B and Part D than other recipients, with those at the top of the surcharge paying almost $1,000 per month for Part B premiums alone.
Income Caps on Working Beneficiaries
Finally, there are new earnings limits for workers below full retirement age (age 66 for people born in 1943 through 1954). In 2021, those who are not at full retirement age will lose $1 in Social Security benefits for every $2 they earn over $1,580 a month ($18,960 per year). After reaching one’s full retirement age, there are no earning thresholds that will impact benefits.
The 2021 COLA increase continues the recent trend of coming in low and putting pressure on retirees’ finances, while medical expenses continue to rise at much faster rates. As a result, retirees will see less disposable income from their benefits, while high-earning workers will see continued tax increases that outpace benefit payouts. This puts pressure on all beneficiaries of the system.
1 Starting in 1975, Social Security benefit increases have been based on cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). Pre-1975, the benefit increases were set by legislation.
There are certain year-end financial transactions that must clear by Dec. 31 to be reported on the 2020 tax return. It’s important to take a good look at your financial portfolio in light of the plethora of unusual events that occurred this year. Now is a good time to see if you have fallen off track and reposition your portfolio for better opportunities in 2021.
Despite the dramatic stock market drop that accompanied the outbreak of COVID-19 on our shores, markets have recovered remarkably well. This means the traditional strategy of harvesting gains and losses at year-end could be appropriate for many investors. When your capital losses are more than your capital gains for the year, you can claim up to $3,000 to reduce your taxable income and even carry over remainder losses on next year’s tax return.
Harvesting is also a good way to rebalance your asset allocation strategy, so you are well-positioned to meet long-term goals starting in the New Year. If you are interested in selling winners and losers to mitigate your 2020 tax liability, make sure, these transactions are fully completed by Dec. 31.
Tip: Some investors might be tempted to sell shares for a loss and then buy back into that position. However, take pains to avoid running afoul of the “wash rule,” which is when an investor purchases a “substantially identical” security within 30 days of a loss sale. Doing so diminishes the losses you can claim on your taxes, even if you buy it back in January. This also can occur inadvertently through automatic dividend and capital gains reinvestment purchases – so monitor your holdings and make sure there’s a 30-day lag between sale and reinvestment.
For workers who invest in an employer-sponsored 401(k) plan, you have until the end of the year to defer up to $19,500 ($26,000 if you’re age 50 or older) from your paycheck. If you’d like to stash away more money, the combined annual limit for traditional and Roth IRAs is $6,000 ($7,000 for age 50+) for 2020. Note, however, that contributions for these accounts may continue to be made up until you file your 2020 tax return.
Tip: Given the potential for higher taxes under the new administration, it might be wise to max out after-tax Roth IRA contributions while taxes are low. When taxes are higher, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s tend to be more valuable because tax-deferred contributions help reduce current income. You also might want to convert a portion of traditional IRA funds to a Roth this year to take advantage of the lower tax environment. Convert only a strategic portion to avoid tipping your current income into a higher tax bracket.
Retirement Plan Withdrawals
You have only until year-end to withdraw up to $100,000 without penalty from a retirement plan if you have been directly affected by COVID-19 this year. Note, too, that subsequent income taxes on this withdrawal either can be spread out over a three-year period or avoided entirely if you re-contribute the funds over the next three years.
Tip: Legislation passed early in the year permits retirees to skip taking required minimum distributions in 2020. However, because the stock market has recovered nicely, and in light of higher taxes in the future, it might be a good idea to go ahead and take this distribution before year-end.
Education Savings Accounts
If your college student received a tuition refund this year because the class experience moved online, be aware that any refunds of College Savings 529 plans must be deposited back into that account. Otherwise, that money is considered a distribution for non-qualified expenses. Make that deposit back into the 529 account by year-end to avoid any taxes or penalties.
Tip: Parents and grandparents can reduce their estates by making a year-end gift to a student’s 529 plan. You may gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 for married couples) per beneficiary without incurring gift taxes or affecting your lifetime gift tax exemption ($11.58 million).
With winter around the corner and the threat of seasonal viruses looming, a second wave of COVID-19 poses a real threat to our health and business operations, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveal that the 2019-2020 flu season took 24,000 lives and sickened 39 million individuals. Then when we add the fact that there are children who might not be receiving vaccinations – be it for the measles, whooping cough, and others – due to COVID-19, the risk for infections multiply.
Based on these factors, there’s a real possibility of a second wave of COVID-19 and other seasonal illnesses impacting business operations for the worse.
As the State of Washington’s Department of Commerce explains, there are many things that businesses can do to prepare for a second wave of the coronavirus. Here are a few recommendations that can be applied and modified, depending on the type of business.
The Washington State Department of Commerce recommends businesses use their digital presence, such as email, a website, blog or social media, to inform and connect with customers. There’s a balance that companies need to find between marketing and selling products or services and not sounding tone-deaf to the situation that COVID-19 has created.
For example, by creating a brief blog or social media post, companies can acknowledge that COVID-19 is a stressful time for everyone, but the company will still be there for them. Explaining how they’re taking care of their employees (social distancing, letting employees work from home and/or take time off for themselves or family members) and how they’re welcoming customers in-store or making house calls (with masks, social distancing, using technology when appropriate), it can create empathy and promote a sense of goodwill.
Another way to leverage digital communication channels is to create a standalone email address to funnel visitor and customer questions regarding COVID-19 concerns.
Planning on how to deal with food that won’t be used is an important step for organizations that deal with mass quantities of food. For schools, colleges, or universities that were open but have closed or others that want to make contingencies to close, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends a few different avenues to make good use of food that would otherwise spoil. Organizations should make plans to donate to food banks or food rescue organizations; and there is also the EPA’s Excess Food Opportunities Map, which can direct unused food to composting options for businesses.
Another way for companies to prepare for a second wave of COVID-19, as the State of Washington’s Department of Commerce points out, is to ensure all documents are up-to-date and accessible via hard copy and electronically. Example documents include minutes and resolutions from official business meetings, tax records – especially any recently filed quarterly estimate payments – and lists of vendors. Companies also should ensure that digital files are encrypted, protected by passwords and that the cloud provider has a firewall, security scanning, and continually addresses vulnerabilities.
Business owners should have contingency plans to deal with supply chain issues. One way to mitigate supplier issues, according to McKinsey & Company, is to negotiate with existing suppliers that have cash or liquidity issues.
By offering essential suppliers with loans, often at attractive interest rates compared to lenders, as a way to keep suppliers in business, businesses may be able to negotiate for exclusive or high priority production agreements. This can be done while looking for alternate suppliers, either domestically or in other parts of the world.
While the second wave of COVID-19 is a real possibility, taking steps to prepare for any surge in cases will help companies increase their chances to make it out of the pandemic.
By the end of September, the nation had recorded over a quarter million cases of COVID-19 and nearly 60,000 deaths in nursing homes that were attributed to the disease. The recent pandemic offers yet another reason why more than 90 percent of seniors say they want to grow old in their homes rather than move into a senior housing facility.
But just how feasible is that goal, from a financial perspective? Much depends on how independently you can live for the rest of your life. That is something we cannot plan. Even elderly people with an excellent gene pool and no known health conditions can experience a fall or other accident that could render them helpless. And the older you get, the higher the risk of cognitive decline, which can make it unsafe to live alone.
However, you might still be able to live out your golden years in your own home if you can afford to pay for in-home care. Each year, Genworth Financial publishes a Cost of Care Survey that examines the cost of various types of long-term care. However, when you break down the assumptions, you might find the survey’s cost estimations are lower than what many people actually pay.
For example, the average fee for homemaker services (household chores, prepare meals, run errands, accompany to appointments) is $22.50 an hour. For a home health aide (help with bathing, dressing, toileting and simple first aid) the average hourly wage is $23. Depending on your location, you could pay more for a company that employs home workers or pay less for independent caregivers. Be aware that if you choose the independent route, you’ll have to vet abilities, trustworthiness and schedule your own back-up resources if they don’t show up for some reason.
However, according to the Genworth report, the average daily rate for a homemaker is only $141, or $4,290 a month. That breaks down to about six hours a day. What happens when you reach a point where it’s unsafe for you to mill about the house by yourself because you might leave the stove on, or you might fall and there’s no one to help. If you pay a caregiver to stay with you 16 waking hours a day, that would cost you $360 per diem, or about $11,000 a month.
If you don’t sleep well and tend to have to use the restroom at night, you might need to pay for a night shift caregiver just to make sure you get around OK. That means 24-hour care will run you more than $16,000 a month, or $195,000 a year – and that’s in today’s dollars.
If you’re planning on in-home care 10 to 15 years from now, those rates will probably be higher.
There are a couple of other issues to note. First, you don’t need to be completely incapacitated to require 24-hour care. It could be as simple as mild but gradual progressive dementia; a mobility issue; or fear of living alone after a spouse dies. Also, if a couple is living comfortably at home with 24-hour care, that expense probably won’t go away if one spouse dies – but household income will probably decrease.
There are alternative ways you might consider that would allow you to stay home throughout your elder years, and the earlier you plan for them the better they will work out. First of all, be nice to your grown children. Not only might you prefer to move in with them or they move in with you, but if things don’t work out, they will likely be the ones to determine where you live out your golden years.
Second, consider your housing situation and if you can negotiate room and board to one or more caregivers in exchange for their help. You might also consider cohabitating with an elderly friend or family member to help share caregiver fees, and perhaps eliminate the need for excess hours a day. Better yet, consider moving in together with several friends to help spread out the costs and improve your chances that some seniors will be less infirmed than others.
Since 2010, on average more than 10,000 Baby Boomers turned age 65 per day and by the year 2030, all Baby Boomers will be 65 or older. Among them, 52 percent will require long-term care in their lifetime. If you want to remain at home but worry about the cost of caregiving, you’ll have plenty of housemates from which to choose.
As bad as the economy is right now due to the COVID outbreak in the United States, many economists are predicting that the long-term outlook is much bleaker. Alas, Congress and the Federal Reserve’s efforts at stimulus and interest rate management have done much to keep the economy and stock market afloat. However, small businesses – the backbone of America’s employment growth – are closing every day. As consumer spending reduces further, the impact will likely affect Wall Street. Consequently, share prices may soon begin correcting to reflect the future more so than the present.
It should come as no surprise, then, that 88 percent of respondents admit they are worried about their finances, according to a recent survey conducted by the National Endowment for Financial Education.
This economic decline has presented an interesting mix of demographics who have or will be affected the most over the long term. For instance, many low-income workers have remained employed throughout the pandemic because their jobs are considered “essential services.” This includes check-out clerks at grocery stores; laborers who work outdoor jobs; nurses, orderlies, and nursing home attendants.
By contrast, many white-collar business owners – such as physicians and dentists– closed shop for a few months and/or have reduced the number of patients they see. Alas, 79 percent of those surveyed with a household income of more than $100,000 a year said they were at least somewhat concerned about their financial situation.
Millennials are the generation most likely to change the way they manage their finances in the future. Although many have remained employed in white-collar jobs – primarily due to their technology-enhanced skills and knowledge – they have reason to be concerned. After all, this generation has already lived through the market downturn following 9/11, the Great Recession, and now a historic economic decline caused by the coronavirus. In fact, once they finally got a foothold in their careers, this recent downturn obliterated the last five years’ worth of economic growth. Going forward, finance experts predict that these young adults will be more focused on stock-piling savings, buying modest homes when the real estate market corrects, and generally working on a long-term plan for financial stability.
While those strategies are mostly good, it’s a shame this generation had to learn the hard way – all while encumbered with historically unprecedented student loan debt. However, as these lessons are passed down through generations – much the way the Great Depression had a lasting impact on the Silent Generation – U.S. populations may see higher savings rates at the expense of lower GDP growth.
For households recovering from financial stress or looking to create a plan for stronger financial resiliency no matter what the future holds, consider the following strategies.
Financial setbacks will come and go; it’s the lessons we learn from them that should have the most staying power.
At the end of 2019, Congress passed the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act as part of a year-end appropriations package. This bill is designed to address specific issues related to retirement savings plans in an effort to help Americans save more for retirement.
Retirement Plan Contributions
People are living longer, and a decrease in employer-sponsored pensions has resulted in retirees relying more on Social Security benefits than in the past. So first, the SECURE Act eliminated the age limit on traditional IRA contributions so that people who work into their 70s and beyond may continue to contribute to the traditional IRA up to the annual limit. In 2020, the limit for all IRAs – traditional and Roth combined – is $6,000; $7,000 for individuals age 50 and older.
Retirement Plan Distributions
The SECURE Act also extends how long retirees may keep money invested in their traditional IRA, 401(k)s and other defined-contribution plans before mandating distributions. Starting this year, people who turn 70½ after Dec. 31, 2019 may delay having to start taking annual required minimum distributions (RMD) until age 72.
Inherited IRAs Reigned In
The Stretch IRA is an advantage bestowed to non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit an IRA. While a benefit still exists, the SECURE Act makes it somewhat less advantageous. Starting in 2020, assets in these inherited accounts must be fully distributed by Dec. 31 of the 10th year following the death year of the IRA owner. This means that annual distributions will be larger and the investment will no longer be able to grow beyond 10 years.
Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans
The SECURE Act also made changes to employer-sponsored retirement plans. For example, it allows employers to increase the cap on automatic payroll contributions to 15 percent (up from 10 percent) of an employee’s paycheck. Research has found that automatic payroll deductions have been instrumental in improving both participation and savings rates among employer retirement plans. However, employees continue to have the ability to retain their current contribution level (or opt out of the plan entirely).
The legislation also requires employers that sponsor a defined-contribution plan to offer it to any long-term, part-time workers. The criteria for this requirement are that individuals must be age 21 or older and work at least 500 hours each year, for three years in row. However, the measurement time for this requirement doesn’t start until 2021.
The SECURE Act attempts to replace the secure pension plan by making it more attractive for employers to offer a lifetime income option as part of their 401(k) plan. Also known as an annuity, this option allows the worker to use his or her retirement plan contributions to purchase an annuity contract over time.
In the past, employers were reluctant to include an annuity option because they could be held liable if the annuity provider is unable to fund the retirement income guaranteed by the annuity contract. To help alleviate this concern, the SECURE Act protects the employer from liability as long as it chooses an annuity insurer that, for at least seven years, is 1) licensed by that state’s insurance commissioner; 2) has filed audited financial statements in accordance with state laws; and 3) maintains the statutory requirements for reserves among all states where the provider does business.
Employers that offer an annuity option must now issue a customized statement each year that estimates how much plan participants would receive in monthly retirement income based on the current balance of their annuity. When employees retire or take a new job, they can transfer their in-plan annuity to another 401(k) or an IRA without incurring fees or surrender charges.
The SECURE Act also provides new benefits for small businesses that sponsor a retirement plan for employees. They may now receive up to $5,000 to offset retirement plan startup costs, and can get an additional $500 tax credit per year for three years if their plan features auto-enrollment for new hires. The bill makes it possible for small employers in unrelated industries to open a multiple-employer 401(k) plan (MEP) in order to share administrative costs.
Overall, the various provisions of the SECURE Act described above are designed to make retirement savings easier and more accessible. Small businesses will find it less burdensome to offer both full- and part-time employees 401(k) plans by providing tax credits and protections on collective Multiple Employer Plans. Individuals will find they have more flexibility in managing their accounts later in life. Overall, the SECURE Act should ease the coming retirement crisis as demographics change by helping people prepare better.
As we progress through life, we find there are certain things we can control and others we cannot. However, even with the things we can’t control, we can exercise good judgement based on facts, due diligence, historical patterns and a risk/reward calculation.
These strategies play an important role in retirement planning. When it comes to accumulation, spending and protecting your nest egg, financial analysts rely heavily on safety and probability planning strategies.
For example, a probability-based approach generally refers to investing. In other words, prices of stocks and bonds will vary over time, and as investors we do not have control over the factors that cause those price swings – such as poor company management, a dip in sector growth, an economic decline, political instability and even global economic implications. We basically have to do our due diligence to ensure the securities we invest in are stable and well-managed, but in the end it’s a bit of a leap of faith. The markets will inevitably rise and fall and our equity investments will be impacted.
When it comes to retirement, financial advisors often recommend the following probability-based investments because they tend to be more stable and reliable:
On the other hand, the safety side of the equation involves insurance products. Note that all guaranteed payouts are backed by the issuing insurer, not the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) or the U.S. Treasury Department. So even though insurance products represent strategies that we consider “safe,” they are only as secure as the financial strength of the issuing insurance company.
Insurance contracts are based on insurance pools. This means they spread the risk of losing money across a wide pool of insured participants, betting that a portion of that pool will die early while others live longer. However, that risk is managed by the insurer instead of the contract owner, who is guaranteed to get paid no matter what happens in the investment markets or how many people in the insurance pool live a long time.
Among safety-based vehicles, you might want to consider a long-term care insurance policy to cover expenses should you need part- or full-time caregiving in the later stages of your life. Like homeowner’s insurance, this type of contract leverages manageable premiums to pay for expenses that you might otherwise not be able to afford.
Another safety contract is an income annuity, which offers the option to pay out a steady stream of income for the rest of your life and the life of your spouse – even if the payouts far exceed the premiums you paid. This is a way of ensuring you continue to receive income even if you run out of money.
A retirement plan doesn’t have to rely on safety or probability alone – you can combine these strategies. Many retirees feel more comfortable knowing they have a growth component in their portfolio to help offset the impact of long-term inflation. And within the safety allocation, you can even combine strategies. For example, a hybrid life insurance policy that offers a long-term care benefits rider allows you to draw from the contract if you need to pay for your own long-term care, which simply reduces the death benefit for your heirs. This way you don’t have to pay for coverage you don’t need, but it’s there if you do.