“Research shows that moving 401(k)s to after-tax contributions would boost tax returns in the short term, but leave retirees worse off.”
Overhauling the retirement savings system is the subject of considerable talk in Washington these days, with the focus on how to give an immediate boost to government tax revenues. With retirement fund accounts being measured in the trillions, it’s no surprise that they are being eyed.
One of the ideas being discussed, according to the article “What ‘Rothifying’ 401(k)s Would Mean for Retirees” from The Wall Street Journal, is to repeal the current structure of pretax contributions to retirement accounts and adopt a system where contributions would come only from after-tax contributions, just as Roth IRAs do now. It also has a name, “Rothification.” It could become very popular in the not too distant future.
However, behind this need to plug the gaps in the national budget could be a dismal scenario for workers saving for retirement.
Those U.S. savers who do save money for retirement now contribute to their IRA, SEP, and other tax-deferred accounts with money that is deducted from their taxable income. They only pay taxes on this money when they take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) during retirement, or after age 72. The tax deferral provides a powerful incentive to save. The Investment Company Institute reports that defined contribution plans and IRAs were valued at $18.3 trillion as of the third quarter of 2019.
With a federal deficit now at more than $1 trillion and the federal debt at $23 trillion (according to the U.S. Treasury), the money has to come from somewhere. The Treasury also estimates that it will forgo $2.4 trillion in tax revenue from the nation’s tax-deferred retirement savings over the next ten years.
With Social Security having an additional $43 trillion in underfunding, according to the 2019 report of the Social Security and Medicare trustees, government funds are going to have to come from somewhere.
Under “Rothification,” savers would make their retirement fund contributions with after-tax income, and the Treasury would get its money now, rather than waiting for current workers to retire or die.
The challenge is that people don’t save as much as they need to for retirement. Many of them are depending upon Social Security to cover the lion’s share of their retirement income. Removing the tax incentive for retirement saving will discourage retirement saving.
What will that mean for estate planning? Adjusting to the changes from the SECURE Act already has estate planning lawyers reviewing estate plans for the new ten-year withdrawal requirements for IRA beneficiaries. Once the “Rothification” discussions move from talk to legislation, expect large push-back from the financial services industry, which runs these accounts, now worth $18.3 trillion.
Reference: The Wall Street Journal (February 17, 2020) “What ‘Rothifying’ 401(k)s Would Mean for Retirees”