What the SECURE Act Means for Taxpayers

The Act addresses some outdated provisions for retirement plans

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The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act was signed into law December 2019 without much fanfare. The law made several changes to retirement account and pension rules, made it easier for small businesses to set up retirement plans for their employees, allowed part-time employees to participate in employer retirement plans, plus some administrative and other changes all aimed at shoring up the U.S retirement-saving system.

Learn more about how the law changed the retirement system.

Key Takeaways

  • The SECURE Act, passed into law in 2019, addressed some deficiencies in the tax-advantaged retirement- and education-savings systems.
  • The law changed the age at which account holders must begin taking distributions from retirement savings plans from 70-1/2 to 72 and extended indefinitely the period during which workers can contribute to an IRA.
  • Part-time employees may now contribute to employer-sponsored retirement-savings plans, provided they've worked for the employer at least 500 hours per year over the previous three years.
  • The law changed some 529 education savings plan rules to allow fro a broader array of education expenses to be "qualified expenses," including repayment of student loans.

Required Minimum Distributions From Retirement Plans 

Older Americans have long been required to start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their retirement plans at the age of 70-1/2. “Required” is the keyword here; they have had to begin withdrawing their money whether they needed it or not. These distributions represent the least they must take from their plans each year.

Retirees have always been permitted to withdraw more than the minimum, but before the SECURE Act, they had to withdraw at least their RMD amount and add it to their taxable income.

The SECURE Act pushed this age back to 72. The age 70-1/2 rule took effect in the 1960s and was never adjusted to accommodate the fact that Americans are living longer. The rule prevented older adults from passing the funds on to heirs without ever touching the money or paying taxes on it themselves.

The SECURE Act includes some checks and balances. Some beneficiaries are now required to begin taking their own RMDs from inherited accounts within 10 years of the account-holder’s death. It used to be they could stretch the distributions out over their own life expectancies as a tax-deferral measure.

Provisions for Growing Families

Many retirement plan withdrawals have been subject to a 10% tax penalty when taken before the age of 59-1/2, although some exceptions exist, depending on what you do with the money.

The SECURE Act adds another exception: Parents who give birth to, or adopt, a child can take up to $5,000 in the year following the event. The money is to be used for “qualifying birth or adoption expenses.”

The distributions are still subject to regular tax, but they can be repaid to a retirement account later.

Part Timers Can Join 401(k) Plans

Part-time workers, defined as those who work fewer than 1,000 hours a year, have not traditionally been able to contribute to most 401(k) plans through their employers. The SECURE Act changes this. Employees must now work more than 1,000 in just one year to be able to contribute, OR 500 hours a year for three consecutive years.

Plans that are part of a collective-bargaining agreement are exceptions to this new rule, and employees must be age 21 or older.

IRA Contributions and Distributions

The SECURE Act eliminated the age limit for making contributions to traditional IRA plans, which used to be 70-1/2. Account owners couldn’t contribute money to these plans any later than this, even if they had not yet retired. They can now contribute indefinitely.

This change was also prompted by the fact that Americans are working longer, and therein lies the catch: You must still be working to take advantage of it.

529 Education Savings Plan Provisions 

A 529 plan is an education savings plan designed to help parents pay for qualified higher education costs. The money invested grows tax-free, provided that withdrawals are used to pay for education expenses. But as with all tax-advantaged savings plans, there are rules. Qualifying expenses didn’t include paying off student loan balances.

Taking withdrawals to repay student loans is now OK up to a limit of $10,000 under the terms of the SECURE Act. This helps parents whose dependents graduate leaving unused funds in the savings plans. In these cases, the money would be taxed when withdrawn.

The SECURE Act also allows 529 plan funds to be put toward apprenticeship programs, private elementary and secondary school costs, homeschooling, and religious schools.

On the downside, using 529 funds to pay off student loans prevents taxpayers from also claiming a tax credit for interest paid on their student loans, or at least the portion of them that the 529 plan paid off.

The Bottom Line

These rules seem pretty basic, but you might not want to implement them into your tax plan or incorporate them into your tax returns without a little professional help and guidance. There are a few gray areas.

Some of these rule changes impact estate planning as well, so you might want to consult a professional about how to make them work best for you, based on your circumstances.

Article Sources

  1. U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee. "The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019. (The SECURE Act)." Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.

  2. Internal Revenue System. “Retirement Topics—Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs).” Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.

  3. Congress. "H.R.1994—Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019." Section 113. Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.

  4. Congress. "H.R.1994 - Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019." Section 112. Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.

  5. Congress. "H.R.1994 - Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019." Section 107. Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.

  6. U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. "An Introduction to 529 Plans." Accessed Feb. 7, 2022.