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How do I? Get the most from my inherited IRA?

Andrew Presti

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) are popular retirement savings vehicles that enable taxpayers to build their nest egg slowly over the years and enjoy tax benefits as well. But what happens to that nest egg when the IRA owner passes away?

The answer to that question depends on who inherits the IRA. Surviving spouses are subject to different rules than other beneficiaries. And if there are multiple beneficiaries (for example if the owner left the IRA assets to several children), the rules can be complicated. But here are the basics:


Upon the IRA owner’s death, his (or her) surviving spouse may elect to treat the IRA account as his or her own. That means that the surviving spouse could name a beneficiary for the assets, continue to contribute to the IRA, and would also avoid having to take distributions. This might be a good option for surviving spouses who are not yet near retirement age and who wish to avoid the extra 10-percent tax on early distributions from an IRA.

A surviving spouse may also rollover the IRA funds into another plan, such as a qualified employer plan, qualified employee annuity plan (section 403(a) plan), or other deferred compensation plan and take distributions as a beneficiary. Distributions would be determined by the required minimum distribution (RMD) rules based on the surviving spouse’s life expectancy.

In the alternative, a spouse could disclaim up to 100 percent of the IRA assets. Some surviving spouses might choose this latter option so that their children could inherit the IRA assets and/or to avoid extra taxable income.

Finally, the surviving spouse could take all of the IRA assets out in one lump-sum. However, lump-sum withdrawals (even from a Roth IRA) can subject a spouse to federal taxes if he or she does not carefully check and meet the requirements.

Non-spousal inherited IRAs

Different rules apply to an individual beneficiary, who is not a surviving spouse. First of all, the beneficiary may not elect to treat the IRA has his or her own. That means the beneficiary cannot continue to make contributions.

The beneficiary may, however, elect to take out the assets in a lump-sum cash distribution. However, this may subject the beneficiary to federal taxes that could take away a significant portion of the assets. Conversely, beneficiaries may also disclaim all or part of the assets in the IRA for up to nine months after the IRA owner’s death.

The beneficiary may also take distributions from the account based on the beneficiary’s age. If the beneficiary is older than the IRA owner, then the beneficiary may take distributions based on the IRA owner’s age.

If there are multiple beneficiaries, the distribution amounts are based on the oldest beneficiary’s age. Or, in the alternative, multiple beneficiaries can split the inherited IRA into separate accounts, and the RMD rules will apply separately to each separate account.

The rules applying to inherited IRAs can be straightforward or can get complicated quickly, as you can see. If you have just inherited an IRA and need guidance on what to do next, let us know. Likewise, if you are an IRA owner looking to secure your savings for your loved ones in the future, you can save them time and trouble by designating your beneficiary or beneficiaries now. Please contact our office with any questions.