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IRA documents

If you inherit an individual retirement account (IRA) from a spouse, you can treat it like your own IRA or roll it over into a traditional IRA you already have. If you are the beneficiary of an IRA inherited from someone other than your spouse, the options are different. You can’t roll it over into an existing IRA. However, you can transfer it into a new IRA, if you satisfy certain requirements. In either case, failing to follow the rules can result in the IRA being treated as a taxable distribution. A financial advisor can guide you as you deal with an inherited IRA so that you don’t needlessly incur any tax liabilities.

Inheriting an IRA From a Spouse

The owner of an IRA can designate anyone to be the beneficiary of an IRA or other account after the owner’s death. Often, the beneficiary is the surviving spouse. Then the beneficiary has some choices.

First, the surviving spouse can name himself or herself as the owner of the inherited account. In this event, it will be as if the surviving spouse had always owned the account. The same distribution rules will apply.

Second, the new owner can roll it over into an existing IRA. This can be a traditional IRA or, after conversion, a Roth IRA. Any taxable distributions can be rolled over into another plan, such as a qualified employer retirement plan, a 401(a) or 403(b) annuity plan or a state or local government’s 457(b) deferred compensation plan.

If the rollover route is selected, it can be accomplished by a direct trustee-to-trustee transaction.

Or it can be done by taking the funds from the account as a distribution and then depositing the funds into another IRA within 60 days. Waiting longer than 60 days to re-deposit the funds into an IRA risks having the distribution taxed like income.

The most desirable way is to use the direct trustee-to-trustee transaction. This can be set up in advance if the wishes of the original owner regarding the inheritance are known.

The age of the beneficiary determines how the inherited IRA will be taxed. That means, for instance, any distributions before age 59 ½ will get charged a 10% penalty in addition to being subject income taxes. And starting at age 72, the beneficiary will have to start taking the annual required minimum distributions (RMDs.) If a beneficiary was 70.5 or older on Dec. 31, 2019, he or she has to start taking RMDs immediately.

Inheriting From a Non-Spouse

Man working on household finances

If you inherit an IRA from someone other than your spouse, you can’t just roll it over. In this case, the usual approach is to open a new IRA called an inherited IRA. This IRA will stay in the name of the deceased person and the person who inherited it will be named as beneficiary. The inheritor can’t make any contributions to the inherited IRA or roll any funds into or out of it.

The funds can’t just stay in the inherited IRA forever, or even until the new beneficiary reaches the age at which they’d have to start being withdrawn. In most cases, all the funds have to be distributed within 10 years of the original owner’s death. If it’s a Roth IRA, all the interest usually has to be distributed within five years of the owner’s death.

Rather than opening an inherited IRA, the person who inherited the IRA can take a lump sump distribution. Even if the person is younger than 59 ½, the distribution won’t be subject to the usual 10% penalty for an early withdrawal. However, the distributed funds will be subject to income taxes.

Bottom Line

Retired couple on a beachInheriting an IRA from a spouse means the beneficiary can simply name himself or herself as new owner of the account and treat it as if it had been theirs all along. Or the bereaved spouse can roll the funds into a new account. If the inheritor is someone other than a spouse, the usual approach is to set up an inherited IRA, keeping the original owner’s name on the account and naming the inheritor as the beneficiary. But sometimes it makes more sense to disclaim an inherited IRA if, for example, the inherited funds would mean the beneficiary’s estate would be so large it would incur the federal estate tax. In the event an IRA is disclaimed, the funds would go to other beneficiaries named on the account.

Tips for Handling IRAs

  • If you inherit an IRA or expect to – especially if your benefactor is someone other than your spouse – consider discussing the best way to handle it with an experienced financial advisor. Finding one doesn’t have to be hard. SmartAsset’s free tool matches you with financial advisors in your area in five minutes. If you’re ready to be matched with local advisors who will help you achieve your financial goals, get started now.
  • One factor in deciding whether to claim and how to claim an inherited IRA is how much you will get from Social Security. That’s where a free, easy-to-use retirement calculator comes in very handy.

Photo credit: ©iStock.com/designer491, ©iStock.com/shapecharge, ©iStock.com/dmbaker

Mark Henricks Mark Henricks has reported on personal finance, investing, retirement, entrepreneurship and other topics for more than 30 years. His freelance byline has appeared on CNBC.com and in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Kiplinger’s Personal Finance and other leading publications. Mark has written books including, “Not Just A Living: The Complete Guide to Creating a Business That Gives You A Life.” His favorite reporting is the kind that helps ordinary people increase their personal wealth and life satisfaction. A graduate of the University of Texas journalism program, he lives in Austin, Texas. In his spare time he enjoys reading, volunteering, performing in an acoustic music duo, whitewater kayaking, wilderness backpacking and competing in triathlons.
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