Passed in December of 2019, the SECURE Act brought several changes to the rules governing retirement accounts, the most significant of which (at least for financial advisors and their clients) was the elimination of the ‘stretch’ provision applicable to most non-spouse Designated Beneficiaries of inherited retirement accounts. Instead of letting such beneficiaries stretch distributions out based on their own lifetimes, inherited retirement accounts under the SECURE Act must now be emptied by the end of the 10th year after the year of death. Which is challenging when planning for retirement account beneficiaries… but is especially impactful for so-called “Conduit” Trust beneficiaries.
A Conduit Trust is a particular type of “See-Through” Trust that can serve as the (stretch) beneficiary of a retirement account. In order to be a Conduit Trust, all distributions from an inherited retirement account received by the trust must be passed out (i.e., “conduited”) to the trust beneficiaries each year. The appeal of a Conduit Trust is that beneficiaries named as a sole Income Beneficiary are essentially treated as if they were named directly on the account beneficiary form (i.e., allowing the trust to still take advantage of the ‘stretch’ provision if that conduit beneficiary is an Eligible Designated Beneficiary). However, Conduit Trusts whose conduit beneficiaries don’t meet the new “Eligible” Designated Beneficiary requirements – or have multiple Income Beneficiaries where at least one Income Beneficiary is not considered an Eligible Designated Beneficiary – can face significant new complications under the SECURE Act.
For Conduit Trusts with at least one Non-Eligible Designated Beneficiary, the ‘stretch’ provision is automatically eliminated and all funds from inherited retirement accounts must be distributed by the end of the 10th year after death! Accordingly, these circumstances with Non-Eligible Designated Beneficiaries, in particular, beg the question as to whether Conduit Trusts subject to the 10-Year Rule are even a viable solution for clients, especially in cases when the trust language limits distributions to “only” the Required Minimum Distribution. In such scenarios, no distributions can be made until the 10th year after death, when the entire account must be emptied all at once, since that is the only point during the 10-Year Rule when a distribution is actually required (resulting in a potentially huge tax liability in the process).
To help clients address the SECURE Act’s impacts on Conduit Trusts, advisors can start by taking a comprehensive inventory of all clients with trusts as retirement account beneficiaries and identifying those that are Conduit Trusts (which may require some legwork in attaining trust documents to review the trust language regarding distributions). The next step involves identifying all Income Beneficiaries of Conduit Trusts to assess whether the trust can still ‘stretch’ distributions (e.g., is the Income Beneficiary an Eligible Designation Beneficiary? If there is there more than one, are any Income Beneficiaries Non-Eligible Designated Beneficiaries?). Advisors should then proactively review with clients the implications of the 10-Year Rule on their estate planning strategies.
If an alternative to a Conduit Trust is deemed beneficial, the most straightforward alternative may be creating a new Discretionary Trust to replace the Conduit Trust as the retirement account’s Designated Beneficiary. While this route maintains post-death control over retirement assets, it comes at a potentially high cost, though, as Trust tax rates reach the 37% rate at just $12,950 (in 2020), versus $518,400 (Single) or $622,050 (Married Joint) for Individual taxpayers. Alternatively, Conduit Trusts can simply be replaced by the individual Income Beneficiaries themselves as the named beneficiaries of the retirement accounts.
Ultimately, the key point is that Conduit Trusts can be significantly impacted under the SECURE Act, especially when those Trusts have multiple beneficiaries, and even more so when at least one of those beneficiaries is a Non-Eligible Designated Beneficiary. Because with the 10-Year Rule in place, these trusts will potentially be required to distribute all retirement account assets on a 10-year schedule, after which they would no longer protect the retirement assets that they were designed to protect in the first place. Which makes it absolutely crucial to review, update, or potentially replace Conduit Trust beneficiaries of inherited retirement accounts… before the retirement account owner passes away, and the (potentially unfavorable) Conduit Trust rules are permanently locked in!