: You just inherited an IRA — what to do now and how not to mess up


No matter the account balance, an inherited individual retirement account is a generous gift — but it could also be a headache if a web of rules isn’t followed properly. 

The first thing beneficiaries of any age need to know is how the money must be distributed, and that largely depends on the relationship to the gifter. 

Two questions: Who is the spouse? Age of the deceased?

Spouses have three options, according to the Internal Revenue Service: They can name themselves as owner of the IRA and treat the account as their own; they may roll the assets into another account, such as a traditional IRA or qualified employer plan (where allowed); or they could continue to act as beneficiary of the account. 

In all cases, they can change how the money is invested.

Then there’s another wrinkle: was the deceased already 72 years old, when account holders must make withdrawals — or younger? 

Spousal beneficiaries may take ownership of the original IRA if the husband or wife hadn’t already turned 72. The big advantage to this strategy is delaying required minimum distributions, or RMDs, until the surviving spouse hits age 72 if the money isn’t needed earlier. But the spouse would need to be the only beneficiary in this scenario, not, for example, the spouse and children.

In the first scenario, the money would still grow tax-free, with an option to withdraw funds without penalty after turning 59 ½, just as if the widow or widower had opened the account. Spousal beneficiaries also can name new beneficiaries who would inherit anything left in the account after they die.

A second option when the deceased hadn’t yet turned 72 is to move the money into an “inherited IRA,” which would prompt RMDs either in the year when the deceased would have turned age 72, or Dec. 31 of the year after death, whichever is later. As in the first strategy, those required minimum distributions are based on the new owner’s life expectancy. 

If, on the other, the decedent was 72 or older, the surviving spouse can take ownership of the account and follow the same rules as in the first option.

But if the money is instead rolled into an inherited IRA, the new owner must take required minimum distributions based on their own life expectancy by Dec. 31 of the year after the grantor died. This is different than with IRA owners who died before turning 72, where the widow or widower can wait until the original account holder would have turned 72 and been required to take distributions. 

Spouses are exempt from the 10-year time limit to drain the account, as are beneficiaries of decedents who died before 2020 (because they can follow the pre-Secure Act distribution rules). Also exempt from the rule are beneficiaries who are children who have not yet reached the age of majority, disabled or chronically ill individuals, and beneficiaries who are no more than 10 years younger than the decedent. 

Non-spousal beneficiaries — whether children, grandchildren, other relatives or non-family members — cannot treat the account as their own or roll over those assets, the IRS said. They can change how the money is invested and move the money to another account, even with a different money manager, without generating taxes, known as trustee-to-trustee transfers. 

Regardless of the type of beneficiary, taking a lump sum from the inherited IRA would trigger income tax — and depending how much that lump sum is, the tax bill could be hefty. 

Watch the clock

Remember this important deadline for non-spousal beneficiaries: 10 years. That’s the amount of time people who inherited IRAs from someone other than a spouse have to withdraw every cent in these accounts.

This rule is part of the retirement-centric Secure Act that killed the “stretch IRA,” a provision that allowed non-spousal beneficiaries to take withdrawals over their lifetimes. Under the Secure Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2020, those who inherited these accounts can take distributions however they’d like, but the account must be drained by the end of the 10th year after the year the grantor died.  

You may have heard of the five-year rule, which said that people must draw down the account within five years of the original account holder’s passing. That rule has mostly been washed away because of the Secure Act’s 10-year rule. 

The five-year rule does still apply to beneficiaries of IRAs whose owners died prior to 2020 and before reaching age 70 ½ or to beneficiaries who are not people, such as a trust. (The Secure Act also changed when account holders must take required minimum distributions to 72; prior to 2020, the age when RMDs began was 70 ½ years old.) 

Strategizing IRA withdrawals

Individuals pay income taxes on inherited IRAs only when money is withdrawn. But the elimination of the stretch IRA does make strategizing distributions all the more important for most Americans. 

Beneficiaries should plan their withdrawals in line with their expected tax brackets. For example, someone who expects to be in a higher tax bracket in a few years may want to withdraw as much as they can from their inherited IRAs in the current year without pushing themselves into a higher tax rate. Someone who anticipates falling into a lower tax bracket in the next few years, however, would likely want to delay any distributions.

And remember: IRA distributions are taxed at ordinary income-tax rates, not the more favorable capital-gains rates.  

Two more ways to mess up

Typically, Roth accounts (whether a 401(k) or an IRA) must be open for five years and the account owner must be 59 ½ years old to take any distributions tax-free. Beneficiaries who inherit a Roth before the five-year deadline should consult an accountant or financial planner to determine their next steps. 

One last thing to watch out for: many retirement plans with the exception of the Roth IRA have required minimum distribution rules beginning at age 72. If the deceased turned 72 but didn’t take his or her RMD for that year, the beneficiary is responsible for taking that distribution. Failing to do so results in a penalty equal to 50% of the amount required to be distributed.

And if you do intend to keep the IRA, be sure to update it with your own beneficiaries — and warn them that they could have a new web of rules to untangle.

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