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WashingtonWise Investor: Episode 8


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The SECURE Act: 5 Steps to Consider Taking Now

Recent changes to retirement savings rules have caused some confusion. So what do investors need to know to navigate the new law?

In this episode of WashingtonWise Investor, Dan Stein, branch manager in Bethesda, Maryland, joins Mike to talk about the SECURE Act, which was recently signed into law. They discuss the various aspects of the law, consider real-life scenarios the SECURE Act creates, and most importantly, offer clear steps to help investors of all ages navigate the changes to retirement planning.

With Congress back in session, Mike also offers updates on the China trade deal, the market’s reactions to the Iran air strike and the looming impeachment trial, and why there’s no threat of a government shutdown—for now. He also looks at the state of the 2020 election and a new SEC proposal that could reshape the way investors get market information.

WashingtonWise Investor is an original podcast from Charles Schwab. If you enjoy the show, please leave a rating or review on Apple Podcasts.

Click to show the transcript

MIKE TOWNSEND: As 2020 begins, investors have a lot of questions: Can the market sustain the decade-long run of strong returns that culminated with the S&P 500® increasing by more than 28% in 2019? How will the 2020 election impact the market? How will the markets react to escalating tensions in the Middle East?

These are the kinds of questions we tackle here on WashingtonWise Investor, an original podcast from Charles Schwab. I’m your host, Mike Townsend, and our goal on this show is to cut through the noise and the nonsense of the nation’s capital and help investors understand what’s really worth paying attention to.

In today’s Deeper Dive, we’re going to revisit the brand-new retirement savings law known as the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act—or, since everything in Washington must have an acronym, the SECURE Act. Now that it’s passed, we’ll explore its key provisions and offer some concrete steps for what investors should be doing right now to deal with the most significant changes to the retirement savings landscape in at least a decade.

But let’s begin with a look at some other stories that are impacting the markets and investors right now.

At the top of the news, we begin the year with a couple areas of uncertainty. One is the early January U.S. air strike that killed Iranian general Qassim Soleimani. That prompted a retaliatory missile strike from Iran that did not result in any U.S. casualties, followed by a toning down of the rhetoric by both sides. There is considerable frustration among Democrats on Capitol Hill that the president did not consult with Congress before undertaking a military action that could destabilize the Middle East. So far, however, the market reaction has been relatively muted—little volatility, not much impact on the oil markets. And I think that is because so much about what happens next is unknowable.

While some worry that the United States could get drawn into a war in the region, others think Iran’s rhetoric could be tougher than its actions. Until the next shoe drops, the markets seem to be in wait-and-see mode.

The impeachment trial in the Senate is also causing uncertainty. After the House of Representatives approved two articles of impeachment in December, a trial in the Senate is the next step. But the timing and parameters of the trial have not been finalized. Expect the negotiations on the details, and then the trial itself, to take up most of the oxygen in Washington over the first few weeks of the year.

As I’ve discussed on past episodes, we don’t anticipate much market reaction to the impeachment trial itself. With Republicans holding a majority in the Senate, and a two-thirds majority of 67 votes needed to convict, the chances of removing the president from office seem very remote.

Elsewhere, there have been important developments on the two big trade stories that we were following throughout the fall. First, a Chinese delegation is in Washington this week to sign the so-called phase one trade deal between the United States and China. Now, there’s no question this is an important first step in easing the trade tensions between the two countries, but there’s still a long way to go. The markets had a modestly positive reaction to the phase one deal when it was announced back in December, but for now investors appear to be waiting to see how the next round of talks develops.

President Trump has said that he would be traveling to Beijing at some future date to engage in talks on phase two. But there’s no definite timeline for those talks, and the issues are much more complicated—things like China’s state support for its companies, intellectual property violations, and forced technology-transfer issues, in which China forces foreign companies to share their technology in exchange for market access. If it took 18 months of on-again, off-again talks to reach the phase one deal, there’s no telling how long the next round could take.

Investors should be keeping an eye on how this more challenging round of negotiations unfolds in the months ahead. There’s a real chance that the two sides could hit a stalemate at some point this year, and the market’s reaction to that, if it happens, will be important to monitor.

The other major trade development is the final passage by the Senate of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement. The deal was overwhelmingly approved by the House just before the holidays and is expected to be approved by the Senate later this month. Once the president signs it, the USMCA will replace the 25-year old North American Free Trade Agreement. The new deal is generally seen as a positive for the U.S. economy, and businesses of all types are cheering the certainty that comes with resolution of the trade landscape in North America.

Finally, Congress managed to come together right before the holidays to pass a pair of massive spending bills that funded government operations for the remainder of the fiscal year. Facing a potential government shutdown on December 20, the two parties packaged all 12 appropriations bills that fund each government agency and program into two bills that together ran to more than 2,300 pages. Both bills were approved with large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate.

So what does it all mean? Well, it means that a government shutdown is off the table … for now. The two bills fully fund government operations for the remainder of this fiscal year, which ends on September 30. But the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations process must be completed by then, or a government shutdown comes back into play on October 1. Since that’s a mere five weeks before Election Day, it’s virtually certain that Congress will pass a temporary extension of funding through perhaps late November 2020 and then will return to Washington after the election for what is known as a “lame duck” session to deal with the budget.

Those massive bills didn’t just appropriate government funds. There were a number of other provisions of note, including an increase in the age for purchasing tobacco products from 18 to 21 and an increase in pay for both federal employees and members of the military. The new law also repeals the 2.3 percent tax on medical devices and the so-called Cadillac tax on high-cost health care plans. Both were part of the Affordable Care Act, though the Cadillac tax was never collected and the medical device tax had been collected only intermittently. Still, the elimination of these taxes was something long sought by the health care industry. 

For investors, though, perhaps the most significant part of the year-end spending bills was the inclusion of the SECURE Act, which makes significant changes to retirement savings law. We talked about this bill on an episode back in October, but we’re going to revisit it in this week’s Deeper Dive because, well, now it’s the law of the land—and there are a number of steps you should be thinking about right now to make sure you understand the new rules and are taking the best advantage of the savings opportunities that are available.

To help me explore the new law, I’m joined today by Daniel Stein, Charles Schwab branch manager in Bethesda, Maryland. Dan’s a Certified Financial Planner™ who has been helping clients at Schwab for more than 13 years. What we want to do today is give investors five concrete actions that you can take now that this new law is in place.

Dan, thanks so much for joining me.

DAN STEIN: Thank you for having me on, Mike. As you said, this new law has implications for all investors, so I appreciate the opportunity to share some insights. 

MIKE: Before we get too far, let me say one thing right up front. The new law has been on the books for just a couple of weeks. There is lot we are still trying to figure out. As with any law, there are gray areas and specific situations that probably weren’t anticipated when Congress drafted the bill. The IRS, the Treasury Department, and the Labor Department, all of which have jurisdiction over different parts of the retirement savings universe, will need to issue rules and guidance that interpret and explain parts of the new law that aren’t clear. And that process will take many months. So our discussion of the SECURE Act today is based on our current understanding of the new law.

So Dan, let’s begin with a significant change to required minimum distributions, commonly known as RMDs. First, let’s get everyone on the same page by just giving us a quick explanation of what an RMD is.

DAN: Sure. Well, for traditional IRAs, 401Ks at companies where you are no longer working, and most other retirement accounts, account owners are required to distribute a minimum amount from the account each year. The RMD amount is based off your age, the account value at the end of the previous year, and the life expectancy tables published by the IRS. These RMD amounts start off relatively small. Under the current rules, your first few RMDs are less than 4% of the account value, but they escalate as you get older, getting closer to 7% of the account value by age 85 and close to 9% by age 90.

This is important because distributions from traditional retirement plans are taxed as ordinary income, so as the size of your distributions increase, your tax burden may as well.

MIKE: OK, so what’s changed in the new law?

DAN: Under the previous rules, you were required to begin taking RMDs for the tax year of the year you turned 70½. Under the new law, you do not have to take distributions until the year you turn 72. The new rule gives more time for your retirement savings to grow before you need to begin drawing it down.

This is really important, though: If you turned 70½ in 2019, you are still required to take an RMD for 2019. You have until April 1 to take that first RMD, and then, remember, you must still take your 2020 RMD. 

MIKE: Well, this is an aspect of the new law that is potentially very confusing. In fact, last week, I received an e-mail from a married couple where one spouse turned 70½ in November, and her husband turns 70½ in March 2020. I assume they’ll be under different rules? 

DAN: Yeah, that is exactly right. So if the wife turned 70½ in November, she’s under the old rules. There is a provision that remains in place that gives you until April 1 of the following year to take your RMD for the first year that you were required to, so if you turned 70½ in 2019 and you did not take an RMD, you still have time to do so. If you have any question at all about your situation, be sure to contact your advisor for guidance.

It’s important to know which set of rules you fall under and plan accordingly. If you don’t need the funds from your IRA and you take the distribution earlier than required, you are giving up time for those assets to potentially grow tax deferred—and paying taxes on that distribution early. An even bigger issue, though, is misunderstanding the rules you fall under and not taking a required minimum distribution, as the IRS imposes a 50% penalty on the amount that is not taken when required.

This is an important step for all investors—have a plan for your RMDs. Whether you are already 70½, turning 70½ in 2020, or are a few years out still. Understanding the rules that apply to you and the opportunities the new law offers will help you make the most out of your RMDs.

MIKE: Well, so far, we’ve been talking about distributions from retirement accounts, but there is also an important change to the rule regarding contributions.

DAN: That’s right. Each year the IRS decides whether or not to increase the maximum amount that investors can contribute to various retirement plans. While the SECURE Act didn’t make any changes to the contribution limits, it did make a change around contribution age. Under the previous law, you could no longer make contributions to a traditional IRA beginning in the year that you turned 70½. The SECURE Act removed that restriction, allowing anybody who has earned income to continue contributing to a traditional IRA beyond age 70½.

MIKE: OK, wait a second. The law says I can continue contributing to an IRA after age 70½, as long as I’m still working. And since people are working longer and living longer, that makes sense. But what about once you’re taking distributions? Does it make sense for someone to contribute to an IRA at the same time as they are required to be withdrawing money from that same IRA?

DAN: It can feel a little counter-intuitive to continue contributing to traditional IRAs while you are also required to take out RMDs, but keep in mind that in the early years of RMDs, your distributions are less than 4% of the total account, so the amount you add could replenish what you took out and it will benefit from tax-deferred growth.

And remember that both under the previous law and new law, as long as you are still earning income, you are allowed to make contributions to your employer’s 401(k) plans, Roth IRAs, and other retirement plans after the age of 70½, with some caveats.

The smart step here is to discuss your options for continuing to save—traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, 401(k)s whatever it might be—your financial advisor can help you understand which approach makes the most sense for your particular situation.

MIKE: Let’s talk about the estate-planning implications of the SECURE Act. There’s a big change in the new law that will have a significant effect on people who inherit a retirement account—and that may cause some people to rethink their estate plans. So what has changed?

DAN: While a smaller group of investors may have more immediate interest in the change of the RMD age, all investors could see a significant change to their plan here. Anyone planning to leave an IRA to an heir needs to understand the impact of the new law.

One of the most significant changes is to how long an heir can stretch out distributions from the IRA.  Under the previous law, anyone inheriting an IRA, other than spouses, had to take annual required minimum distributions once they inherited the account, but the amount of those distributions was based on the inheritor’s age. That meant that the heir could spread out the withdrawals from the inherited account over his or her lifetime.

Now under the new law, heirs will be required to completely distribute the retirement account by the end of the 10th year after the account holder’s death. Well, this shortened time table reduces the tax-deferred benefit of the inherited IRA significantly, and it could cause a large tax consequence, given the shorter window that these taxable distributions must occur in.

This new rule only affects people who inherit a retirement account in 2020 or after. So if you inherited an account before 2020, the new rules don’t apply to that account.

MIKE: And there are also some important exceptions to the new rule, right?

DAN: That’s right. There are different rules for what are called “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries.” The most common among that group are spouses. Just as it was prior to the SECURE Act, spouses can inherit the IRA and take RMDs on the schedule based on their age. Spouses also continue to have the option to roll over the inherited funds into their own IRA, which would mean any RMDs are on their own timetable, just as if these funds were always part of their own IRA. The other types of eligible beneficiaries that can still inherit the IRA and take RMDs based on their own age are those that are disabled, chronically ill, individuals that are not more than 10 years younger than the decedent, and minor children of the original retirement account holder, with one important caveat.

MIKE: Well, what’s the important caveat?

DAN: Well, minor children get to take RMDs based on their age, and as minors, those RMDs will be a very small percentage of the account. However, once that child reaches the age of majority, the new 10-year rule kicks in, where they will not have a set annual RMD during that 10-year period, but the entire account must be distributed by the end of the 10th year after they reach the age of majority. Now, another important note here, the rule only applies to the minor children of the account holder, so, if say, a grandparent left the account to a grandchild, they would immediately be subject to that 10-year window.

MIKE: One of the other exceptions you mentioned is a beneficiary that is not more than 10 years younger than the decedent. Now, if I’m understanding this correctly, that does open up some additional considerations for estate planning.

Dan. It sure does. Let me give you an example. Let’s say that an investor, named Jim, has a large estate. Jim’s 55 years old, unmarried, and has no kids, but he has a brother and two nephews through that brother, and he wants to leave some of his assets to his brother and the rest directly to his nephews, should he pass away. Well, if Jim’s brother’s 50, and his nephews are 25, and Jim names his nephews as the beneficiaries of his IRA, since they are not his children, and since they are not minors, those nephews would be subject to the 10-year rule to distribute the IRA assets. Now, if Jim instead left his retirement accounts to his brother, who is only five years younger than Jim, well then Jim’s brother would be able to spread those assets out over his entire lifetime. The RMDs would be smaller because they are based on his age of 50. And this could significantly increase the tax-deferred growth benefit of the account and possibly reduce the tax burden, and ultimately, this could create a lot more wealth for the proper inheritor of the IRA. Now this is an example of where the new law makes it even more important to decide how to name beneficiaries for after-tax assets vs. retirement accounts.

Bottom line, a big next step with the passage of this act is to review your beneficiaries, and speak with your financial consultant and estate-planning attorney about how it impacts your estate-planning strategy.

MIKE: Well, Dan, I know a lot of our listeners have trusts and have their trust named as the beneficiary of the IRA. Is there anything they need to do, considering the changes we’re talking about?

DAN: Reviewing your trust is always important, but even more so with this new law. The IRS is still working to finalize their guidance, so we don’t have definitive information, but one thing that we do know is there are definitely changes to how IRAs are treated. So if you have a trust as the beneficiary of your IRA, be sure to talk with an estate-planning attorney and to ensure that your current trust structure and estate plan actually meet what you intended for your heirs.

MIKE: One thing that strikes me is that individuals with large accounts that they hope to leave to a child or a grandchild, either directly or through a trust, might want to look at whether a Roth conversion makes sense.

DAN: I definitely agree. If you are concerned about the tax consequences of a shorter timetable for distributions to heirs, you might want to consider a Roth conversion. Let’s say, for example, a husband and wife with large traditional IRA accounts intend to leave all of their assets to their children, who are each high income earners in high tax brackets. Well, if that couple is in a much lower tax bracket now, they could do partial conversions of their IRAs to Roth IRAs each year, keeping the amount of taxes they must pay on those distributions relatively low, and turning them into Roth assets that will not have any ordinary income tax implications on their beneficiaries when they take distributions. Now, again, this is a great reason to talk to your financial consultant to see if a strategy on Roth conversions is a step that makes sense for you to pursue.

MIKE: Well Dan, we’ve been focusing on the people passing these funds on, but let’s flip the script around. If I expect to be inheriting retirement assets sometime in the future, what should I be thinking about? Depending on my age, I could have had 20, 30, 40, maybe 50 years left to distribute that account. Now I’ve got just 10. How does that change my thinking?

DAN: Well, the major consideration of the new 10-year period to distribute retirement accounts is that all of the funds need to be out of the account by the end of the 10-year period, but there are no rules that say you have to take any distributions up until the very end. So technically, you could spread them out any way you want over 10 years, or you could wait until the very last day and take the entire amount in one lump sum. It’s entirely up to you.

The key thing to think about is how it will affect your tax burden. Let’s say for example that we look at an investor named Adam. Adam is 58 years old. Adam has a high-paying job, and he’s at a high effective tax rate, and he intends to retire in five years at age 63.

Now Adam’s mother passes away and leaves him a traditional IRA valued at $500,000. If Adam decided to take distributions equally over that 10-year period, it would create a significant tax consequence in the first five years, as the ordinary income from those distributions would be added to his income from work.

Adam could instead choose to take no distributions from the IRA until the year following his retirement. The account would have more time to grow tax deferred, and when he did begin to take distributions, he could spread them over the last five years of that 10-year period. Because he now only has five years to spread out the distributions, they’re going to be higher, but they could be taxed at a lower effective rate. Because he is retired, the distributions are not added on top of the income that he had received from his job.

Bottom line, it has always been a good idea to talk to your financial advisor anytime you have a big change in your financial or life situation, and receiving an inheritance is certainly one of those times.

MIKE: Well, this is great information, Dan. To sum up, there are a number of steps that investors can and should take now:

  • First, when it comes to RMDs you need to have a plan for taking those distributions. If you are over age 70 now, make sure you review and confirm your RMD obligations to understand whether you are under the old law or the new law. And if you are under 70, now is the time to consider how RMDs will factor into your financial plan in the future.
  • Second, if you’re over 70½ and still working, you can now contribute to a traditional IRA—but you should consider whether doing so makes sense.
  • Third, everyone should review their retirement account beneficiaries and make any necessary adjustments.
  • Fourth, if you have a trust, review it and make sure that your IRAs are going to be distributed as you intended.
  • And fifth, consider if Roth conversions might be right for you, to lessen the overall tax burden in certain situations.

As you consider each of these steps, probably the most important thing to do is talk to your financial advisor. Everyone’s situation is different, and a consultation with a professional is critical to ensure you’re complying with the new law, and benefiting from it as much as possible.

Well, Dan, thanks so much for joining me to help sort through all of this.

DAN: Thank you so much for having me on, Mike.

MIKE: Before we leave the topic of the SECURE Act, I want to mention a couple of other implications of the new law.

One thing that retirement plan participants will have in the future is something called “lifetime income disclosure.” This will be a kind of progress report that will illustrate how your current savings would translate into a monthly income in retirement. The goal is to make savers more aware of how they are progressing toward a secure retirement, and the hope is that younger workers will be inspired to start saving earlier. The law directs the Department of Labor to develop rules and regulations for how this lifetime income disclosure will work, including developing a model disclosure. That’s a regulatory process that will take a while, so it could be a couple of years before you start seeing this information on annual statements.

There are also several provisions designed to make it easier for small businesses to offer a retirement savings opportunity to their employees.

One way to do that is by allowing unrelated small businesses to band together to offer a plan by sharing the costs and risks. The new law removes some regulatory barriers to make that easier, and the result should be more small businesses offering a retirement savings option to their employees. 47.5%[1] of U.S. workers are employed by small businesses, so this change could go a long way to helping more people build a secure retirement.

The bill also increases the available tax credits for small businesses that start up a plan and makes available a new tax credit for small businesses that adopt auto-enrollment, which means that employees are automatically enrolled in the plan when they are eligible, rather than being required to enroll themselves.

In addition, the new law makes long-term, part-time employees eligible for their employer’s 401(k) plan. Any employee who is over 21 and has worked at least 500 hours in three consecutive years will be eligible.

The bottom line is that there are a lot of changes in this new law. As Dan said earlier, make sure you talk to a financial advisor about how all of these changes apply to your specific situation.

Turning now to the 2020 election, the seventh debate among Democratic candidates for president takes place tonight in Des Moines, Iowa. Just six candidates have qualified for the debate—former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Steyer hit the required polling threshold on the morning of January 10—the very last day for qualifying. It’s the final debate before the first actual votes of the campaign are cast, when Iowans gather for their caucuses on February 3.

One other candidate—entrepreneur Andrew Yang—hit the donor threshold but did not get at least 5% support in four national polls, or 7% support in two early-state polls, and thus will not qualify for the stage. And former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg is using his personal wealth, rather than donations from voters, to fund his campaign, so he cannot qualify for the debates.

One big element of uncertainty is how the impeachment trial in the Senate will impact the four senators who are still running—Klobuchar, Sanders, and Warren, as well as Colorado Senator Michael Bennet, who continues to run his long-shot campaign. The Senate trial is likely to keep these candidates off the campaign trail for long stretches during the crucial run-up to the early states that vote in February—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina.

Polling in the early states shows very close races, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire. In fact, a poll last week has the Iowa race an exact three-way tie between Biden, Buttigieg, and Sanders. Time off the campaign trail for the four senators could have a real impact on the outcome.

In our Why it Matters segment, I look at a story you may have missed and share my thoughts on why it’s important for investors.

Today I want to highlight something the SEC did last week. The agency proposed an overhaul of the rules governing market data. Now market data is the lifeblood of our markets—it’s all the information that investors want to know when considering a trade: the bid price, the ask price, the last sale price, and—if the investor is willing to pay for additional data—things like the depth of the market and the historical information about how the prices have been trending.

The proposal would require the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, or FINRA, to work with the major exchanges to come up with a single plan governing the dissemination of market data, and quoting the SEC, “to increase transparency and address inefficiencies, conflicts of interest and other issues presented by the current governance structure.”  

Now we’re at the front end of what could be a very long regulatory process, but this could be big for individual investors. At Schwab we have long championed a system where all investors are on a level playing field in terms of the speed and quality of the market information that should be provided as part of the core market data display. While it’s too early to tell just where this new regulatory process will end up, we think it’s encouraging that the SEC is taking a serious interest in overhauling a system that has long disadvantaged ordinary investors.

That’s it for this episode of WashingtonWise Investor. I’ll be back with a new episode in two weeks, where we’ll look ahead at the policy issues that we think have the biggest potential to move the markets or affect investors in 2020. Please make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss an episode, and please take a moment to leave a rating or a review on Apple Podcasts or whatever app you use for listening. For important disclosures, see the show notes or visit, where you’ll also find transcripts of every episode.

To keep in touch, follow me on Twitter: @MikeTownsendCS.

I’m Mike Townsend, and this has been WashingtonWise Investor. Thanks for listening and keep investing wisely.

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