Retired employees often start taking benefits by age 65 and, under the minimum distribution rules, must begin taking distributions from their retirement plans when they reach age 70 1/2. According to Treasury, a 65-year old female has an even chance of living past age 86, while a 65-year old male has an even chance of living past age 84. The government has become concerned that taxpayers who normally retire at age 65 or even age 70 will outlive their retirement benefits.

The government has found that most employees want at least a partial lump sum payment at retirement, so that some cash is currently available for living expenses. However, under current rules, most employer plans do not offer a partial lump sum coupled with a partial annuity. Employees often are faced with an “all or nothing” decision, where they would have to take their entire retirement benefit either as a lump sum payment when they retire, or as an annuity that does not make available any immediate lump-sum cash cushion. For retirees who live longer, it becomes difficult to stretch their lump sum benefits.

Longevity solution
To address this dilemma, the government is proposing new retirement plan rules to allow plans to make available a partial lump sum payment while allowing participants to take an annuity with the other portion of their benefits. Furthermore, to address the problem of employees outliving their benefits, the government would also encourage plans to offer “longevity” annuities. These annuities would not begin paying benefits until ages 80 or 85. They would provide you a larger annual payment for the same funds than would an annuity starting at age 70 1/2. Of course, one reason for the better buy-in price is that you or your heirs would receive nothing if you die before the age 80 or 85 starting date. But many experts believe that it is worth the cost to have the security of knowing that this will help prevent you from “outliving your money.”

To streamline the calculation of partial annuities, the government would allow employees receiving lump-sum payouts from their 401(k) plans to transfer assets into the employer’s existing defined benefit (DB) plan and to purchase an annuity through the DB plan. This would give employees access to the DB plans low-cost annuity purchase rates.

According to the government, the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules are a deterrent to longevity annuities. Because of the minimum distribution rules, plan benefits that could otherwise be deferred until ages 80 or 85 have to start being distributed to a retired employee at age 70 ½. These rules can affect distributions from 401(k) plans, 403(b) tax-sheltered annuities, individual retirement accounts under Code Sec. 408, and eligible governmental deferred compensation plans under Code Sec. 457.

Tentative limitations
The IRS proposes to modify the RMD rules to allow a portion of a participant’s retirement account to be set aside to fund the purchase of a deferred annuity. Participants would be able to exclude the value of this qualified longevity annuity contract (QLAC) from the account balance used to calculate RMDs. Under this approach, up to 25 percent of the account balance could be excluded. The amount is limited to 25 percent to deter the use of longevity annuities as an estate planning device to pass on assets to descendants.

Coming soon
Many of these changes are in proposed regulations and would not take effect until the government issues final regulations. The changes would apply to distributions with annuity starting dates in plan years beginning after final regulations are published, which could be before the end of 2012. Our office will continue to monitor the progress of this important development.