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Inherited IRA rules: 7 things all beneficiaries must know

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An inherited IRA may be the most complex issue to handle well when wrapping up an estate. If you’ve recently inherited an individual retirement account, you can find yourself at the tricky three-way intersection of estate planning, financial planning and tax planning. One wrong decision can lead to expensive consequences, and good luck trying to persuade the IRS to give you a do-over.

Here’s how you can avoid some costly decisions around an inherited IRA.

What is an inherited IRA?

An inherited IRA is an individual retirement account opened when you inherit a tax-advantaged retirement plan (including an IRA or a retirement-sponsored plan such as a 401(k)) following the death of the owner. An heir will typically have to move assets from the original owner’s account to a newly opened IRA in the heir’s name. For this reason, an inherited IRA may also be called a beneficiary IRA.

Anyone can inherit an IRA, but the rules on how you must treat it differ depending on whether you’re the spouse of the original owner or someone else entirely. However, a few exceptions to this treatment do exist, as explained below.

How an inherited IRA works

Any type of IRA may be turned into an inherited IRA, including traditional and Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs. Importantly, the income tax treatment of the IRA remains the same from the original account to the inherited IRA. So, accounts made with pre-tax dollars (as in a traditional IRA) or after-tax dollars (as in a Roth IRA) are still treated the same way in an inherited IRA.

Unfortunately, this rule is one of only a few straightforward things about inherited IRAs.

When you inherit an IRA, you have many – too many! – choices to make depending on the situation:

  • If you inherited an IRA, and you’re the spouse of the original owner, you have one set of choices. If you’re a minor child, chronically ill or disabled, or not more than 10 years younger than the original owner, you have another set of choices. But anyone else has a still-different set of options.
  • Whether the original account owner had to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) can also influence what you can and should do with the IRA.
  • Should you try to minimize taxes or maximize cash distribution from the account?

These are a few of the complex questions that an inherited IRA presents to the recipient, and 2019’s SECURE Act shook up long-standing practices, creating more confusion.

Some experts advise IRA beneficiaries to do nothing until they’ve met with a financial advisor who can explain their options.

“The worst thing to do would be to cash out the plan, put it in your account, and then go see an advisor and say, ‘Now what?’” says Natalie Choate, lawyer and author of the retirement plan guide “Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits.”

At that point, you’re in trouble. Before that happens, learn these seven must-know tips for handling an inherited IRA.

Inherited IRA rules: 7 key things to know

1. Spouses get the most leeway

If someone inherits an IRA from their deceased spouse, the survivor has several choices for what to do with it:

  • Treat the IRA as if it were your own, naming yourself as the owner.
  • Treat the IRA as if it were your own by rolling it over into another account, such as another IRA or a qualified employer plan, including 403(b) plans.
  • Treat yourself as the beneficiary of the plan.

If you’re a surviving spouse, you can roll over the inherited IRA into your own account, but no one else will receive this privilege. You have other options for taking the money as well, and each course of action may create additional choices that you must make. In addition, your options depend on whether the deceased spouse was under or at least age 72.

For example, if you as a surviving spouse are the sole beneficiary and treat the IRA as your own, you may have to take RMDs, depending on your age, or you may have to fully withdraw the money in 10 years. But in the right circumstances, you may have the option of not withdrawing money.

“If you were not interested in taking money out at this time, you could let that money continue to grow in the IRA until you reach age 72,” says Frank St. Onge, an enrolled agent at Total Financial Planning, LLC in the Detroit area, when discussing IRAs inherited from a spouse.

In addition, spouses “are able to roll the IRA into an account for themselves. That resets everything. Now they are able to name their own beneficiary that will succeed them and be able to deal with the IRA as if it is their own,” says Carol Tully, CPA, principal at Wolf & Co. in Boston.

The IRS provides further rules around your options, including what you can do with a Roth IRA, where the rules differ substantially from traditional IRAs.

2. Choose when to take your money

If you’ve inherited an IRA, you’ll need to take action to avoid running afoul of IRS rules.

Your available options as an inheritor depend on whether you’re chronically ill or disabled, a minor child, or not less than 10 years younger than the original owner, known as an eligible designated beneficiary. If you’re not someone in one of these categories, known as a designated beneficiary, you have a different set of rules. (And spouses have their own set of rules, as discussed above.)

If you’re in the former group, you have two options:

  1. You can transfer assets into an inherited IRA in your name and choose to take RMDs over your life expectancy of that of the deceased account holder’s.
  2. You can transfer assets into an inherited IRA in your name and choose to take distributions over 10 years. There is no RMD each year, but you must liquidate the account by Dec. 31 of the year, which is 10 years after the original owner’s death.

Your ability to access these options depends on whether the original owner of the IRA was under or at least age 72.

The first option allows most of your funds to grow for potentially decades while you take minimal amounts out each year.

In the second option, the beneficiary is forced to take all the money over 10 years. For substantial accounts, that can add up to a monstrous income tax bill — unless the IRA is a Roth, in which case, taxes were paid before money went into the account.

If you’re in the designated beneficiaries group (but not eligible designated beneficiaries), you can select only the 10-year rule as outlined above. You’ll have up to December 31 of the year that is 10 years after the original account owner’s death to fully withdraw the account.

When you’re considering how to take withdrawals, you’ll need to follow the legal requirements while balancing the tax impact of withdrawals and the advantages of letting the money continue to grow over time.

The IRS website has more information on the topic of RMDs.

3. Be aware of year-of-death required distributions

Another hurdle for beneficiaries of traditional IRAs is figuring out if the benefactor had taken his or her RMD in the year of death. If the original account owner hasn’t done this, it’s the responsibility of the beneficiary to make sure the minimum has been met.

“Let’s say your father dies Jan. 24, leaving you his IRA. He probably hadn’t gotten around to taking out his distribution yet. The beneficiary has to take it out if the original owner didn’t. If you don’t know about that or forget to do it, you’re liable for a penalty of 50 percent” of the amount not distributed, Choate says.

Not surprisingly, that can cause a problem if someone dies late in the year. The last day of the calendar year is the deadline for taking that year’s RMD.

“If your father dies on Christmas Day and still hasn’t taken out the distribution, you may not even find out that you own the account until it’s already too late to take out that year’s distribution,” she says.

If the deceased was not yet required to take distributions, then there is no year-of-death required distribution.

4. Take the tax break coming to you

An inherited IRA may be taxable, depending on the type. If you inherit a Roth IRA, you’re free of taxes. But with a traditional IRA, any amount you withdraw is subject to ordinary income taxes.

For estates subject to the estate tax, inheritors of an IRA will get an income-tax deduction for the estate taxes paid on the account. The taxable income earned (but not received by the deceased) is called “income in respect of a decedent.”

“When you take a distribution from an IRA, it’s taxable income,” says Choate. “But because that person’s estate had to pay a federal-estate tax, you get an income-tax deduction for the estate taxes that were paid on the IRA. You might have $1 million of income with a $350,000 deduction to offset against that.”

“It’s not necessary that you were the person who paid the taxes; just that someone did,” she says.

For 2022, estates worth more than $12.06 million are subject to the estate tax, up from $11.70 million in 2021.

5. Don’t ignore beneficiary forms

An ambiguous, incomplete or missing designated beneficiary form can sink an estate plan.

Many people assume they filled out the form correctly at one point.

“You ask who their beneficiary is, and they think they know. But the form hasn’t been completed, or it’s not on record with the custodian. That creates a lot of problems,” says Tully.

If there is no designated beneficiary form and the account goes to the estate, the beneficiary will be stuck with the five-year rule for distributions from the account.

The simplicity of the form can be misleading. Just a few pieces of information can direct large sums of money.

“One form like that can control millions of dollars, whereas a trust could be 50 pages,” says M.D. Anderson, founder of InheritedIRAHell.com and president of Arizona-based Financial Strategies, which specializes in inherited IRA issues. “People procrastinate, they don’t update forms and cause all kinds of legal entanglement.”

6. Improperly drafted trusts can be bad news

It is possible to list a trust as a primary beneficiary of an IRA. It is also possible that this will go horribly wrong. Done incorrectly, a trust can unwittingly limit the options of beneficiaries.

Tully says that if the provisions of the trust are not carefully drafted, some custodians won’t be able to see through the trust to determine the qualified beneficiaries, in which case the IRA’s accelerated distribution rules would come into play.

The trust needs to be drafted by a lawyer “who’s experienced with the rules for leaving IRAs to trusts,” says Choate.

Without highly specialized advice, the snarls can be difficult to untangle.

7. A Roth IRA can help you sidestep some of the tax issues

One of the less obvious benefits of the Roth IRA is how it eliminates some tax issues in estate planning. Given the complexity of inherited IRAs, it’s valuable when anything simplifies the process. In general, the Roth IRA allows you to pass assets tax-free to heirs, meaning that later they won’t be taxed on the principal. However, the Roth IRA doesn’t eliminate all tax issues.

For example, if a spouse inherits a Roth IRA and decides to treat it as their own, any withdrawn earnings on the account will be taxable until the spouse reaches age 59 ½ and the five-year holding period has been met.

Or if you take a lump sum distribution of the account, you’ll also enjoy a tax-free withdrawal as long as the five-year holding period on the account was met. If this rule was not met, any withdrawn earnings are taxable.

Of course, there are other ways to treat the Roth IRA that have different implications, and you’ll want to explore which one works best for your situation. But the fact that the Roth IRA reduces the tax impact on heirs may make it easier to decide what to do with the money.

Where to turn for help

Inherited IRAs present many complications, even more so than the already-strict rules of an IRA plan. But you have several options, including some free ones, that can get you going in the right direction so that you can avoid costly mistakes.

First off, you can search for help on the IRS website. The site offers comprehensive rules on distributions from IRAs, and it’s a good first resource to answer your questions. But what the IRS doesn’t offer is advice on which course of action you should take or what might be best for your individual situation. So your next move is to consult with your IRA custodian, who will have more detailed info on your plan and how you can proceed.

But some IRA custodians are more versed than others in the complex rules surrounding inherited IRAs.

“Talk about it with the custodian ahead of time,” says Tully. “Plans are great, but only as far as the ability to have them properly implemented.”

The problem is that a mistake, or bad advice, made on the part of the custodian can create difficulties for the beneficiaries, and the IRS will not be sympathetic.

“The malpractice is irreversible. You cannot argue abatement of penalty and interest and taxation in an inherited IRA case. There is no justice other than a private letter ruling,” says Anderson. A private letter ruling involves handing over an IRS fee of about $6,000 to $10,000 and then waiting six months for an answer, he adds.

Finally, you have the option of hiring a lawyer or financial advisor but be sure to select one with experience in this specific field. In the case of a financial advisor, pick a fee-only fiduciary, because they will put your interests first and you – not someone else – are paying them to do so.

This kind of advisor will help you make a decision that meets your needs and fits your specific situation. That’s especially important when the issues here are complex and it’s easy for unscrupulous advisors to do what’s in their best interest rather than yours.

If you’re getting conflicting advice or something seems wrong, don’t sign anything that could lead to something irreversible. Get a second opinion from someone with expertise specific to inherited IRAs. It really can be that complicated.

Bottom line

An inherited IRA can be a windfall, especially if you’re able to take advantage of decades of tax-advantaged compound growth. But as you’re navigating the process, you’ll want to make sure that you avoid the pitfalls, which unfortunately seem all too easy to fall into. While relatively easy questions can likely be answered online, it could be well worth the cost to hire an advisor to help you maximize your decision and make sure it’s the best option for you.

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Written by
James Royal
Senior investing and wealth management reporter
Bankrate senior reporter James F. Royal, Ph.D., covers investing and wealth management. His work has been cited by CNBC, the Washington Post, The New York Times and more.
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