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  • Writer's pictureSteve Coker, CFP

Inheriting an IRA? 4 key rules you should know




If you have been named as the beneficiary of an IRA then you should know that inheriting an IRA is different from inheriting other assets.   IRA’s have special tax rules that are important to understand since taking the right steps at the beginning can make a big difference in the amount that you will eventually receive.   Handled inappropriately, an inherited IRA can result in massive tax bills, and penalties.  If you are inheriting an IRA then here are four key rules you should know.


1. Traditional IRA money has not yet been taxed


The most important thing to understand when you inherit a traditional IRA is that the assets have not yet been taxed.  The tax treatment that you receive as a beneficiary is similar to that of the original owner.  This means that, if handled properly, the inherited IRA can continue to grow tax deferred within the account and will only be taxed when you make distributions from the account.  Of course, the IRS may require you to make minimum distributions, but we’ll discuss that later.  The key point is that there is a significant tax advantage to leaving the funds in the Inherited IRA and that withdrawing the full balance of the IRA could result in a massive tax bill.  For example, if you inherit an IRA worth $500,000 and choose to distribute the full amount, the resulting tax bill could be 50% or $250,000 of the inheritance. Thankfully, you are not required to withdraw or distribute an inherited IRA right away.


2. Required Minimum Distributions (RMD’s) may be required


However, as a beneficiary you may be subject to “Required Minimum Distributions”, which is a percentage of the account that must be distributed and taxed. If you are a non-spouse beneficiary the IRS will generally require you to distribute the entire account within 10 years. If the original account owner was subject to RMD’s you will need to fulfill the owner’s RMD and may also be required to take annual minimum distributions.  These RMD’s on inherited IRA’s may be required even if you are not required to take distributions on your own IRA’s.  In general, RMD’s are not as scary as many make them out to be, and usually represent a small fraction of the account.  Yet, failure to take the RMD’s by the deadline will result in significant penalties. I recommend getting help on RMD’s since there are new rules that are complex and there are many exceptions.


3. Spouses get special treatment


If you are a spousal beneficiary then there are special rules that apply to you.  As a surviving spouse, you can transfer your inherited IRA assets to your own IRA and treat these assets as if they were your own.  The key benefit of this approach is that the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD’s) will be based on your own age and will use a different IRS table that will generally result in lower required minimum distributions.  Typically, if you are a surviving spouse you will want to take advantage of this rule if you are a) younger than the decedent and the decedent died after beginning RMD’s since it will delay any RMD’s until you turn 72 or b) Older than 59.5 or you don’t need the money before age 59.5.  Of course, you don’t have to take advantage of this special spousal privilege and you may want to keep the Inherited IRA in instances where you have not yet reached age 59.5.  If you are wondering what is best in your situation consider consulting an advisor.


4. You can disclaim your inheritance.


An important planning step that is often ignored is considering whether you want to inherit the IRA at all.  The IRS allows you to disclaim your inheritance and the funds will then pass to the contingent beneficiary named in the IRA (or the default beneficiary in the plan if no contingent is named).  If your ultimate goal is to have the funds pass to someone else, then it may be better to not inherit the funds in the first place.  For example, if your children are named as the contingent beneficiaries of the IRA, and your ultimate goal is to have the Inherited funds pass to your children, it may be better to simply disclaim the inheritance and have the assets pass to the children directly.  Of course, there are many issues wrapped up in this decision, but it is worth having a conversation with a planner to decide what is best for you.


Inheriting an IRA can result in some complex, and important planning issues.  If you want to discuss your situation, please feel free to give us a call.

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