What Do I Do With an Inherited IRA?

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When a family member dies and you discover you’re the beneficiary of a retirement account, you’ll need to eventually make decisions about how to handle the money in the IRA that you will be inheriting.

Forbes’ recent article, “What You Need To Know About Inheriting An IRA,” says that being proactive and making informed decisions can help you reach your personal financial goals much more quickly and efficiently. However, the wrong choices may result in you forfeiting a big chunk of your inheritance to taxes and perhaps IRS penalties.

Assets transferred to a beneficiary aren’t required to go through probate. This includes retirement accounts like a 401(k), IRA, SEP-IRA and a Cash Balance Pension Plan. Here is some information on what you need to know, if you find yourself inheriting a beneficiary IRA.

Inheriting an IRA from a Spouse. The surviving spouse has three options when inheriting an IRA. You can simply withdraw the money, but you’ll pay significant taxes. The other options are more practical. You can remain as the beneficiary of the existing IRA or move the assets to a retirement account in your name. Most people just move the money into an IRA in their own name. If you’re planning on using the money now, leave it in a beneficiary IRA. You must comply with the same rules as children, siblings or other named beneficiaries, when making a withdrawal from the account. You can avoid the 10% penalty, but not taxation of withdrawals.

Inheriting an IRA from a Non-Spouse. You won’t be able to transfer this money into your own retirement account in your name alone. To keep the tax benefits of the account, you will need to create an Inherited IRA For Benefit of (FBO) your name. Then you can transfer assets from the original account to your beneficiary IRA. You won’t be able to make new contributions to an Inherited IRA. Regardless of your age, you’ll need to begin taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from the new account by December 31st of the year following the original owner’s death.

The Three Distribution Options for a Non-Spouse Inherited IRA. Inherited IRAs come with a few options for distributions. You can take a lump-sum distribution. You’ll owe taxes on the entire amount, but there won’t be a 10% penalty. Next, you can take distributions from an Inherited IRA with the five-year distribution method, which will help you avoid RMDs each year on your Inherited IRA. However, you’ll need to have removed all of the money from the Inherited IRA by the end of five years.

For most people, the most tax-efficient option is to set up minimum withdrawals based on your own life expectancy. If the original owner was older than you, your required withdrawals would be based on the IRS Single Life Expectancy Table for Inherited IRAs. Going with this option, lets you take a lump sum later or withdraw all the money over five years, if you want to in the future. Most of us want to enjoy tax deferral within the inherited IRA for as long as permitted under IRS rules. Spouses who inherit IRAs also have an advantage, when it comes to required minimum distributions on beneficiary IRAs: they can base the RMD on their own age or their deceased spouse’s age.

When an Inherited IRA has Multiple Beneficiaries. If this is the case, each person must create his or her own inherited IRA account. The RMDs will be unique for each new account, based on that beneficiary’s age. The big exception is when the assets haven’t been separated by the December 31st deadline. In that case, the RMDs will be based on the oldest beneficiaries’ age and will be based on this, until the funds are eventually distributed into each beneficiary’s own accounts.

Inherited Roth IRAs. A Roth IRA isn’t subject to required minimum distributions for the original account owner. When a surviving spouse inherits a ROTH IRA, he or she doesn’t have to take RMDs, assuming they retitle the account or transfer the funds into an existing Roth in their own name. However, the rules are not the same for non-spouse beneficiaries who inherit a Roth. They must take distributions from the Roth IRA they inherit using one of the three methods described above (a lump sum, The Five-Year Rule, or life expectancy). If the money has been in the Roth for at least five years, withdrawal from the inherited ROTH IRA will be tax-free. This is why inheriting money in a Roth is better than the same amount in an inherited Traditional IRA or 401(k).

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about an Inherited IRA. The rules can be confusing, and the penalties can be costly.

Reference: Forbes (September 19, 2019) “What You Need To Know About Inheriting An IRA”