Why Retirees Should Care about the CARES Act: How to Maximize Coronavirus Stimulus Package

The government's $2 trillion stimulus bill has something for pretty much everyone. Here's how retirees are affected and some steps to consider to make the most of this measure.

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Less than a month ago, on March 12, I taught a class to 40 retirees in our offices on the planning strategies surrounding the SECURE Act. That scene is now unimaginable. One client in that group left the next morning for Disney World with his kids and grandkids. Our clients have gone from navigating the “death of the stretch IRA” to trying to circumvent actual death in the age of COVID-19. It’s eerie and surreal — and it’s safe to say the SECURE Act has taken a back seat to more pressing issues.

Our nation has mounted a massive response to the coronavirus pandemic focusing on health, safety and the economy. From a monetary standpoint, the Fed was first to act, with an emergency rate cut on March 3 followed by additional cuts that brought the Federal Funds Rate to zero.

On March 27, 2020, the market got what it was looking for on the fiscal front. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020 (CARES Act) is the biggest economic stimulus package ever signed into law. It impacts health care systems, small businesses, workers and retirees. This article will help retirees navigate the impact on them and the planning strategies developing as a result of the legislation.

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1. Yes, you will (likely) get a check (direct deposit)

This is wholly dependent on your 2018 OR your 2019 adjusted gross income and the number of kids you have under 17. Section 2201 of the act details this, and it is much more confusing than most of the literature suggests, because it is technically a 2020 tax credit that is being credited to you in advance. This matters only if you did not qualify in 2018 or 2019 because your income was too high, but you lose your job in 2020 and therefore do qualify. You’ll get your check, but not until you file your 2020 taxes, in 2021.

Here are the numbers that matter:

  • Individuals: AGI < $75,000 = full $1,200 stimulus check
  • Head of Household: AGI < $112,500 = full $1,200 check
  • Married Filing Jointly: AGI < $150,000 = full $2,400 check

Beyond these thresholds, you lose $5 of credit per $100 of income. To simplify, assuming there are no kids under 17, individuals will see a reduction in credit all the way up to $99,000, at which point it will completely disappear. Married couples will see the same reduction up to $198,000 before it goes away.

Planning strategy: If you qualified in 2018 but not in 2019, wait until July to file your 2019 taxes. If you qualify in 2019 but did not in 2018, do the opposite. File your taxes ASAP. The checks, termed “recovery rebates,” will likely show up in May (though, this is ever-evolving). For those receiving Social Security, the checks will be direct-deposited into that same account. For those who are set up for direct deposit of their tax refund, same thing.

2. You can skip your 2020 RMDs for both your accounts and beneficiary accounts

RMDs are loathed by those retirees who don’t need the income. The distribution creates a taxable event for money that is often rolled right back into a taxable investment account. Good news: RMDs have been suspended for calendar year 2020 for retirement accounts and inherited retirement accounts.

If you have already taken your 2020 RMD for your own account, you have 60 days to indirectly roll it back into that account. You simply write a check and deposit it back into the same account. If you’ve already taken a distribution from an inherited account, there is no way to get that money back in.

Planning strategy: If you don’t need the RMD, don’t take it. Keep your income artificially low in 2020 and use the opportunity to make a Roth IRA conversion. Convert up to the top of the tax bracket without jumping into the next one. Example: You’re married, filing jointly and your taxable income is $180,000, including your $30,000 RMD. Your marginal tax rate is 24%. Skip the RMD, bring your taxable income down to $150,000 and convert $21,000 from your traditional IRA to your Roth IRA, all while staying in the 22% marginal bracket.

If the coronavirus crisis hurts you financially, you can pull out up to $100,000 from your retirement account(s) and spread the tax hit over three years. I view this as more of a windfall for those under 59½ than for those who are older, because it also waives the 10% early-distribution penalty.

I think we will see some creative strategies from folks in real estate looking for more liquidity, but the benefits are limited for those who already have access to that money, penalty-free.

Planning strategy: If you took your RMD at the very beginning of the year, you got lucky because you sold at the top. This is typically not a good practice. That said, you may be beyond the 60-day window to get the money back in. This is all developing but, based on the ability to pay back coronavirus-related distributions over three years, you can probably get that money back in, within three years of your distribution date.

4. There are benefits for Medicare beneficiaries

A couple of my extended family members have Parkinson’s disease, so they rely on a plethora of prescription drugs. As soon as drug supply chains started getting thrown off in China, it would have been wise for any of these family members to stock up on their drugs. One of the provisions of the CARES Act requires pharmacies to accept and fill 90-day drug supplies for Medicare Part D beneficiaries.

While it seems a long way off, Medicare beneficiaries will also be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine at no cost. Lastly, you can now tap health savings accounts for a wider range of products, coined “over-the-counter medications.”

Planning strategy: Order your drugs online. It’s safer. Stay inside.

5. There are incentives to make charitable contributions

The wealthy have long been able to “game” the charitable rules. Some of the new provisions in the CARES Act open that door a little wider. For 2020, the AGI limit on charitable giving, previously 60%, has been raised to 100%. This means that if you want to give a big gift in 2020, you can effectively bring your taxable income to zero.

There is a new above-the-line deduction for cash contributions up to $300. While this is not a big figure, it allows a tax benefit for those who don’t itemize, which according to the Tax Foundation is over 90% of filers. Important exception: If you do itemize, you cannot take this deduction. Your charitable deductions will be reflected on your schedule A.

Planning strategy: If you don’t itemize and are over 70½, give your first $300 from taxable positions: bank, brokerage account, etc. Beyond that, give from your IRA via a qualified charitable distribution (QCD).

If you plan to make large charitable gifts, 2020 is a good year to do it. Use the gift(s) to lower your capital gains rate to zero and sell something with an unrealized gain.

We are now playing life on a new chessboard. Certain elements will never return to “normal.” Will kids ever have another snow day, or will these now just be “virtual days”? Many of the independent businesses you love will cease to exist after the economic blow this pandemic has dealt them. As a retiree, the nest egg you have is your business. I hope this column helps you fortify that business.


This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Evan T. Beach, CFP®, AWMA®
President, Exit 59 Advisory

After graduating from the University of Delaware and Georgetown University, I pursued a career in financial planning. At age 26, I earned my CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification.  I also hold the IRS Enrolled Agent license, which allows for a unique approach to planning that can be beneficial to retirees and those selling their businesses, who are eager to minimize lifetime taxes and maximize income.