Inherited IRA Mistakes (& How YOU Can Avoid Them)
Do you want to hand your heirs big tax problems? Would you like to hand the IRS a sizable chunk of your wealth? Probably not. But if you misunderstand the rules when it comes to inherited IRAs, you just might. Here are some missteps that IRA owners and IRA heirs often make – financial choices you might come to regret.
Thinking that a will or a trust can facilitate the transfer of IRA assets. Most IRAs don’t pass to heirs through wills or trusts (a few rare exceptions aside). The beneficiary form takes precedence – the form the IRA owner filled out and signed when opening the account. Problems arise when
In these circumstances, IRA heirs commonly end up playing by the IRA custodian’s rules. The resulting beneficiary may be the IRA owner’s estate – a very undesirable tax consequence. It might be a contingent beneficiary – perhaps a very undesirable emotional consequence. The lesson here is to keep the beneficiary form handy and to let your heirs know where it is.
Taking lump-sum distributions. Too often, non-spousal IRA heirs see the inherited assets as money to spend. They withdraw the entire IRA balance in one fell swoop. Bad idea: all that money will be subject to federal income tax. Due to this move, they may lose a third of the IRA assets (or more).
The alternatives? Non-spousal beneficiaries can open an inherited Roth or traditional IRA and simply take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from that inherited IRA under the appropriate schedule:
This decision can allow the invested IRA assets to keep compounding with the added benefit of tax deferral.
Not realizing your four options when you inherit your spouse’s IRA. If a spouse dies, the surviving spouse that inherits an IRA has some choices. He or she can:
There are compelling reasons to go with the rollover. The widowed spouse can set up an RMD schedule based on his or her life expectancy. This second point is really important, because the rollover allows the surviving spouse to put off the RMDs that would otherwise soon need to happen. In fact, the surviving spouse can wait until the year in which the original IRA owner would have turned 70½ to start taking required withdrawals from the IRA.
But there is also a compelling tax reason not to make a rollover if the widowed spouse wants to take distributions from the inherited IRA before age 59½. If that is the desire, those withdrawals will be slapped with the nagging 10% early withdrawal penalty plus the requisite income taxes.
If the spouse converts the IRA into his or her own IRA, the surviving spouse can name a beneficiary for the inherited assets, keep contributing to the IRA, and potentially avoid RMDs until he or she turns 70½.
Alternately, a surviving spouse who doesn’t really need inherited IRA assets can “disclaim” them, meaning that they will go to a contingent beneficiary. Sometimes this can be a wise move for tax purposes.
Non-spousal heirs fail to retitle an inherited IRA. If this isn’t done in the year following the year in which the original IRA owner passed, then there can be no direct rollover of the inherited IRA assets and no “stretch” for those assets.
What happens if a non-spouse beneficiary just rolls the inherited IRA assets into an IRA they own, one that isn’t retitled? Then it is not a direct rollover. The IRS treats those inherited IRA assets like a fully taxable cash distribution – 100% of it is subject to income tax.
Ask for help, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Many families and couples have only a hazy understanding of the rules governing IRAs, and few really know all the options. Make sure your IRA beneficiary form is up to date, and speak with the financial professional you know and trust about how to handle the transfer of IRA assets when the time comes.