Planning Considerations for an Inheritance


If you’re the beneficiary of a large inheritance, you may find yourself suddenly wealthy. Even if you expected the inheritance, you may be surprised by the size of the bequest or the diverse assets you’ve inherited. You’ll need to evaluate your new financial position, learn to manage your sizable assets, and consider the tax consequences of your inheritance, among other issues.

Issues that arise in connection with an inheritance

If you’ve recently received a bequest, consider the possibility that the will may be contested if your inheritance was large in comparison with that received by other beneficiaries. Or, you may decide to contest the will if you feel slighted. If you’re the spouse of the decedent, you may elect to take against the will. Taking against the will means that you’re exercising your right under probate law (governed by the statutes of your state) to take a share of your spouse’s estate, rather than what your spouse left you in the will, because this is more beneficial to you. Another possibility is that you may disclaim the bequest if you’re in a high income or estate tax bracket, or don’t need or want the bequest.

Caution: Some states allow no-contest clauses to be included in wills. If a will has such a clause and someone contests the will and loses, he or she gets nothing.

Evaluating your new financial position


It’s important to determine how wealthy you are once you receive your inheritance. Before you spend or give away any money or assets, decide to move, or leave your job, you should do a cash flow analysis and determine your net worth as a first step toward planning your financial strategy. Your strategy will partly depend on whether you have immediate access to, and total control over, the assets, or if they’re being held in trust for you. In addition, you need to know what types of assets you’ve inherited (e.g., cash, property, or a portfolio of stocks).

Inheriting assets through a trust vs. inheriting assets outright

When you inherit money and assets through a trust, you’ll receive distributions according to the terms of the trust. This means that you won’t have total control over your inheritance as you would if you inherited the assets outright. With a trust, a trustee will be in charge of the trust. A trustee is the person who manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or beneficiaries. The initial trustee was named by the individual who set up the trust. The trustee will likely be your parent or other family member, a close family friend or advisor, an attorney, or a bank representative. The trust document may spell out how the trust assets will be managed and how and when trust income and assets will be paid to you, and it will outline the duties of the trustee.

Know the terms of the trust

If you’re the beneficiary of a trust, the following should be done to ensure that your interests are protected:

Read the trust document carefully. You have the right to see the document, so if you can’t get a copy, hire an attorney to get it. Go over the document yourself or with the help of a legal or financial professional, making sure you understand the language of the trust and how its income and principal will be distributed to you. You may be the beneficiary of an irrevocable trust (can’t be changed), or you may be the beneficiary of a revocable trust (can be changed). In addition, determine whether certain practices are allowed or prohibited. For example, one common trust provision prohibits a beneficiary from borrowing against the trust. Another can prevent the beneficiary from paying creditors with assets of the trust. An additional provision usually prohibits creditors from attaching a beneficiary’s share of the trust.

Determine if the trust income is sufficient to meet your needs. Is the trust heavily invested in long-term growth stocks or nonrental real estate? Or, is the trust invested in things that provide income to you now, such as rental real estate or money market funds? From your agent (e.g., attorney, accountant) or trustee, get the income statements used to calculate how much income will be distributed to you.

Get to know your trust officers (if any) and find out how much the trustee fees are. Then, compare the fee with the average in your state or county (you might ask your local bank for this information). You may be able to negotiate the fee if it is too high, especially if the estate is large.

Working with a trustee

In some trusts, the trustee must distribute all of the income to the beneficiary every year. This type of trust may be simple to administer and relatively conflict free. You may want to work with the trustee or other professionals to ensure that the annual trust distribution is adequate to meet your needs.

In other trusts, the trustee may decide when to distribute trust income and how much to distribute. If this is the case, open communication with the trustee is important. You’ll need to set up a sound budget or financial plan and carefully prepare your request for a trust distribution if it is out of the ordinary. It’s in your best interests to find a way to work with the trustee. In most states, trustees are difficult to replace, and although they’re not supposed to lose money on investments, they’re not usually penalized if the trust performs poorly. If you decide to sue the trustee for mismanaging the trust, his or her legal fees may be paid for from the trust.

Caution: No matter how trust funds are distributed, pay close attention to how the trustee handles the trust investments. Have your lawyer, accountant, or financial advisor look over the trustee’s investment strategy. If your advisor determines that the trustee’s investment strategy doesn’t meet your needs or, worse, is unsound, discuss this strategy with the trustee or possibly ask the trustee to change his or her strategy.

Inheriting a lump sum of cash

When you inherit a large lump sum of cash, you’ll be responsible for managing the money yourself (or hiring professionals to do so). Even if you’re used to handling your own finances, becoming suddenly wealthy can turn even the most cautious individual into a spendthrift, at least in the short run. Carefully watch your spending. Although you may want to quit your job, move, gift assets to family members or to charity, or buy a car, a house, or luxury items, this may not be in your best interest. You must consider your future needs, as well, if you want your wealth to last. It’s a good idea to wait a few months or a year after inheriting money to formulate a financial plan. You’ll want to consider your current lifestyle, consider your future goals, formulate a financial strategy to meet those goals, and determine how taxes may reduce your estate.

Inheriting stock

You may inherit stock either through a trust or outright. The major question to consider is whether you should sell the stock. This depends on your overall investment strategy and what type of stock you’ve acquired. If you acquire stock in a company, for example, and you now own a controlling interest, you’ll need to look at how actively you want to be involved in the company or how much you know about the company. If you inherit stock and find that it doesn’t fit your portfolio, you may consider selling it, depending on the market conditions.

Inheriting real estate

If you inherit real estate, such as a house or land, you’ll probably have to decide whether to keep it or sell it. If you keep it, will you live there or rent it out? Do you hope that the house will appreciate in value, or are you keeping it for sentimental reasons? If you decide to sell or rent the house, you’ll need to consider the tax consequences, as well.

Tip: It’s possible that you may inherit real estate or other assets together with others, and sales may require the other owners’ assent or court action to sever the property.

Short-term and long-term needs and goals

Once you’ve done a cash flow analysis and determined what type of assets you’ve inherited, you need to evaluate your short-term and long-term needs and goals. For example, in the short term, you may want to pay off consumer debt such as high-interest loans or credit cards. Your long-term planning needs and goals may be more complex. You may want to fund your child’s college education, put more money into a retirement account, invest, plan to minimize taxes, or travel.

Use the following questions to begin evaluating your financial needs and goals, then seek advice on implementing your own financial strategy:

  • Do you have outstanding consumer debt that you would like to pay off?
  • Do you have children you need to put through college?
  • Do you need to bolster your retirement savings?
  • Do you want to buy a home?
  • Are there charities that are important to you and whom you wish to benefit?
  • Would you like to give money to your friends and family?
  • Do you need more income currently?
  • Do you need to find ways to minimize income and estate taxes?

Tax consequences of an inheritance

Income tax considerations

In general, you won’t directly owe income tax on assets you inherit. However, a large inheritance may mean that your income tax liability will eventually increase. Any income that is generated by those assets may be subject to income tax, and if the inherited assets produce a substantial amount of income, your tax bracket may increase. Once you increase your wealth, you should look at ways to minimize your overall tax liability, such as shifting income, giving money to individuals or charity, utilizing other income tax reduction strategies, and investing for growth rather than income. You may also need to re-evaluate your income tax withholding or begin paying estimated tax.

Transfer tax considerations

If you’re wealthy, you’ll need to consider not only your current income tax obligations but also the amount of potential transfer taxes that may be owed. You may need to consider ways to minimize these potential taxes. Four common ways to do so are to (1) set up a marital trust, (2) set up an irrevocable life insurance trust, (3) set up a charitable trust, or (4) make gifts to individuals and/or to charities.

Impact on investing

Inheriting an estate can completely change your investment strategy. You will need to figure out what to do with your new assets. In doing so, you’ll need to ask yourself several questions:

Is your cash flow OK? Do you have enough money to pay your bills and your taxes? If not, consider investments that can increase your cash flow.

Have you considered how the assets you’ve inherited may increase or decrease your taxes?

Do you have enough liquidity? If you need money in a hurry, do you have assets you could quickly sell? If not, you may want to consider having at least some short-term, rather than long-term, investments.

Are your investments growing enough to keep up with or beat inflation? Will you have enough money to meet your retirement needs and other long-term goals?

What is your tolerance for risk? All investments carry some risk, including the potential loss of principal, but some carry more than others. How well can you handle market ups and downs? Are you willing to accept a higher degree of risk in exchange for the opportunity to earn a higher rate of return?

How diversified are your investments? Because asset classes often perform differently from one another in a given market situation, spreading your assets across a variety of investments such as stocks, bonds, and cash alternatives, has the potential to help reduce your overall risk. Ideally, a decline in one type of asset will be at least partially offset by a gain in another, though diversification can’t guarantee a profit or eliminate the possibility of market loss.

Once you’ve considered these questions, you can formulate a new investment strategy. However, if you’ve just inherited money, remember that there’s no rush. If you want to let your head clear, put your funds in an accessible interest-bearing account such as a savings account, money market account, or a short-term certificate of deposit until you can make a wise decision with the help of advisors.

Impact on insurance

When you inherit wealth, you’ll need to re-evaluate your insurance coverage. Now, you may be able to self-insure against risk and potentially reduce your property/casualty, disability, and medical insurance coverage. (However, you might actually consider increasing your coverages to protect all that you’ve inherited.) You may want to keep your insurance policies in force, however, to protect yourself by sharing risk with the insurance company. In addition, your additional wealth results in your having more at risk in the event of a lawsuit, and you may want to purchase an umbrella liability policy that will protect you against actual loss, large judgments, and the cost of legal representation. If you purchase expensive items such as jewelry or artwork, you may need more property/casualty insurance to protect yourself in the event these items are stolen. You may also need to recalculate the amount of life insurance you need. You may need more life insurance to cover your estate tax liability, so your beneficiaries receive more of your estate after taxes.

Impact on estate planning

Re-evaluating your estate plan

When you increase your wealth, it’s probably time to re-evaluate your estate plan. Estate planning involves conserving your money and putting it to work so that it best fulfills your goals. It also means minimizing your exposure to potential taxes and creating financial security for your family and other intended beneficiaries.

Passing along your assets

If you have a will, it is the document that determines how your assets will be distributed after your death. You’ll want to make sure that your current will reflects your wishes. If your inheritance makes it necessary to significantly change your will, you should meet with your attorney. You may want to make a new will and destroy the old one instead of adding codicils. Some things you should consider are whom your estate will be distributed to, whether the beneficiary(ies) of your estate are capable of managing the inheritance on their own, and how you can best shield your estate from estate taxes. If you have minor children, you may want to protect them from asset mismanagement by nominating an appropriate guardian or setting up a trust for them.

Using trusts to ensure proper management of your estate and minimize taxes

If you feel that your beneficiaries will be unable to manage their inheritance, you may want to set up trusts for them. You can also use trusts for tax planning purposes. For example, setting up an irrevocable life insurance trust may minimize federal and state transfer taxes on the proceeds.

Impact on education planning

You may want to use part of your inheritance to pay off your student loans or to pay for the education of someone else (e.g., a child or grandchild). Before you do so, consider the following points:

  • Pay off outstanding consumer debt first if the interest rate on your consumer debt is higher than it is on your student loans (interest rates on student loans are often relatively low)
  • Paying part of the cost of someone else’s education may impact his or her ability to get financial aid
  • You can make gifts to pay for tuition expenses without having to pay federal transfer taxes if you pay the school directly

Giving all or part of your inheritance away

Giving money or property to individuals

Once you claim your inheritance, you may want to give gifts of cash or property to your children, friends, or other family members. Or, they may come to you asking for a loan or a cash gift. It’s a good idea to wait until you’ve come up with a financial plan before giving or lending money to anyone, even family members. If you decide to loan money, make sure that the loan agreement is in writing to protect your legal rights to seek repayment and to avoid hurt feelings down the road, even if this is uncomfortable. If you end up forgiving the debt, you may owe gift taxes on the transaction. Gift taxes may also affect you if you give someone a gift of money or property or a loan with a below-market interest rate. The general rule for federal gift tax purposes is that you can give a certain amount ($14,000 in 2014) each calendar year to an unlimited number of individuals without incurring any tax liability. If you’re married, you and your spouse can make a split gift, doubling the annual gift tax exclusion amount (to $28,000) per recipient per year without incurring tax liability, as long as all requirements are met. Giving gifts to individuals can also be a useful estate planning strategy.

Tip: The annual gift tax exclusion is indexed for inflation, so the amount may change in future years.

Caution: This is just a brief discussion of making gifts and gift taxes. There are many other things you will need to know, so be sure to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

Giving money or property to charity

If you make a gift to charity during your lifetime, you may be able to deduct the amount of the charitable gift on your income tax return. Income tax deductions for gifts to charities are limited to 50 percent of your contribution base (generally equal to adjusted gross income) and may be further limited if the gift you make consists of certain appreciated property or if the gift is given to certain charities and private foundations. However, excess deductions can usually be carried over for five years, subject to the same limitations. For estate planning purposes, you may want to make a charitable gift that can minimize the amount of transfer taxes your estate may owe. There are many arrangements you can make to reach that goal. Be sure to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

Inheriting an IRA or Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plan

When the account owner of a traditional individual retirement account (IRA) or employer-sponsored retirement plan dies, the remaining funds in the account pass to the named beneficiary (or beneficiaries). Unlike many other inherited assets, these IRA or plan funds typically pass directly to the beneficiary without having to go through probate. (Probate is the court-supervised process of administering a will and proving it to be valid.)

These funds are usually subject to federal income tax, unlike some other inherited assets. For federal income tax purposes, post-death distributions from an IRA or plan account are treated the same as distributions that the account owner took during his or her lifetime (state income tax may also apply). In both cases, the portion of a distribution that represents pretax or tax-deductible contributions and investment earnings is taxed, while the portion that represents after-tax or nondeductible contributions is not. The difference, of course, is that the beneficiary is the one who must pay the taxes after the account owner has died.

If you are an IRA or plan beneficiary, you might want to leave inherited funds in the account as long as you like. This would allow you to postpone taxable distributions indefinitely, while maximizing the tax-deferred growth potential of the funds. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to do this. You will generally be required to take distributions of the inherited funds at some point, possibly sooner than you would like. However, you may have more than one option for taking distributions, and the option you choose can be critical.

Caution: While the same general rules apply to inherited Roth IRAs, Roth IRAs are unique in that qualified distributions are free from federal income tax.

Caution: This discussion focuses on the general rules regarding options available to a beneficiary that inherits an IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan. Your IRA or plan may specify the option(s) available to you.

Beneficiary designations

Primary, secondary, and final beneficiaries

Primary beneficiaries are the IRA owner’s or plan participant’s first choices to receive the funds. By contrast, secondary beneficiaries (also known as contingent beneficiaries) receive the funds only in the event that all of the primary beneficiaries die or disclaim (i.e., refuse to accept) the funds.

Designated beneficiaries

Designated beneficiaries get preferential income tax treatment after your death. Being named as a primary beneficiary is not necessarily the same as being a designated beneficiary. Designated beneficiaries are individuals (human beings) who (1) are named as beneficiaries in the IRA or plan documents, (2) do not share the same IRA or plan account with another beneficiary who is not an individual, and (3) are still beneficiaries as of the final beneficiary determination date (September 30 of the year following the year of the IRA owner’s or plan participant’s death–the “September 30 next-year date”). The distinction is important because designated beneficiaries generally have greater and more flexible post-death options.

Tip: Are you a designated beneficiary? The answer depends on who the beneficiaries are on the “September 30 next-year date”–not who the beneficiaries are on the date of death. If you inherited an IRA or plan because the owner or participant named you as sole primary beneficiary, you are almost certainly a designated beneficiary. If you are one of several primary beneficiaries for the same IRA or plan account, you are probably a designated beneficiary if all of the other primary beneficiaries are individuals. However, if any of the other primary beneficiaries are nonindividuals (a charity, for example), you may not be a designated beneficiary. Also, if the IRA or plan funds are coming to you through the owner’s or participant’s estate, you are probably not a designated beneficiary. If the funds are coming to you from a trust that is receiving the IRA or plan dollars, special rules will apply. Consult a tax or estate planning professional.

Final date for determining beneficiaries

Only beneficiaries remaining on September 30 of the year following the year of the IRA owner’s or plan participant’s death are considered as possible designated beneficiaries for purposes of post-death distributions from the IRA or plan account.

The September 30 next-year date does two things. First, it allows the IRA owner or plan participant to change beneficiaries any time during his or her lifetime. Second, it creates the opportunity for post-death planning. For example, if an IRA owner dies and the primary beneficiary does not need the money, the primary beneficiary could make a disclaimer up until the September 30 next-year date (note, however, that to be valid for estate and gift tax purposes, a qualified disclaimer–refusal to accept benefits–must be signed by a beneficiary and meet other requirements no later than nine months after a death. Therefore, even though designated beneficiaries are determined on September 30 of the year following the year of a death, a disclaimer may need to be signed much earlier to meet the nine-months-after-death rule). This might allow the funds to pass to a secondary beneficiary with a greater financial need.

Another possibility is that one or more primary beneficiaries could “cash out” their entire share of the inherited funds by the September 30 next-year date. If this is done by the September 30 next-year date, the “cashed out” beneficiaries are not considered as possible designated beneficiaries for purposes of calculating post-death distribution methods. For example, this strategy can be very effective in cases where the primary beneficiaries include both individuals and one or more charities. The charity (ineligible as a designated beneficiary) can take its entire share (income tax free) by the September 30 next-year date, leaving only the individuals as remaining beneficiaries who may qualify as designated beneficiaries.

Caution: 2002 final regulations clarify that a designated beneficiary who dies after the death of the IRA owner or plan participant, but prior to the September 30 next-year determination date, is still treated as a designated beneficiary for purposes of calculating post-death distributions from the IRA or plan account. As discussed above, this is in contrast to situations where a designated beneficiary makes a qualified disclaimer prior to the September 30 next-year date.

Factors that determine post-death distribution options

First, if you have inherited an employer-sponsored retirement plan account, the plan is generally allowed to specify the post-death distribution options available to you. These options may not be as flexible as the options permitted under the final IRS distribution rules. For example, depending on whether a plan participant died before or after his or her required beginning date, some plans may provide a different default payout method than the IRS rules. In such a case, you may not be able to elect another payout method as an alternative to the plan’s default method. Your first step should be to consult the retirement plan administrator regarding your post-death options as a beneficiary.

The other factor that determines post-death options is the type of beneficiary. Individual beneficiaries generally have more options and flexibility than nonindividual beneficiaries. For example, post-death options are severely limited if the IRA owner or plan participant dies with his or her estate as a beneficiary. This could occur if the estate is named as a beneficiary, or if there are no named beneficiaries (in which case the estate becomes the “default” beneficiary). The same limited options apply when one or more charities are named as beneficiary. Special rules apply when a trust is named as beneficiary. Under certain conditions, the underlying trust beneficiaries can be treated as the IRA or plan beneficiaries for distribution purposes.

For individuals who qualify as designated beneficiaries, the options available further depend on whether the beneficiary is a spouse or another individual. Depending on plan provisions and other factors, nonspousal individuals will typically have several post-death options. These options generally include using the life expectancy method, receiving a lump-sum distribution, taking distributions under the five-year rule, or disclaiming the funds. (See below for a description of each.) The life expectancy method is usually the default payout method, and often the most favorable method in terms of providing the longest possible payout period (thereby spreading out income taxes and maximizing tax-deferred growth).

A surviving spouse generally has all of the options available to other designated beneficiaries, plus two additional options. A surviving spouse beneficiary can elect to roll over inherited funds to his or her own IRA or plan account, providing income tax and estate planning benefits. A surviving spouse who is the sole beneficiary may also elect to leave the funds in an inherited IRA and treat that IRA as his or her own account. (This option does not apply to inherited retirement plans.) In most cases, it will be in a surviving spouse’s best interest to exercise one of the two additional options.

Tip: Nonspouse beneficiaries cannot roll over inherited funds to their own IRA or plan. However, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 lets a nonspouse beneficiary make a direct rollover of certain death benefits from an employer-sponsored retirement plan to an inherited IRA. (See Nonspouse rollover to an inherited IRA–The Pension Protection Act of 2006, below.)

Tip: If a participant died before beginning to take required minimum distributions, a surviving spouse can generally wait until the year the participant would have reached age 70½ to begin taking distributions from the account.

Tip: Once a post-death payout method is in place, the IRA or plan beneficiary is usually allowed to take larger distributions than required (including, in most cases, a lump-sum distribution of the beneficiary’s entire share). However, if the beneficiary receives less than required in any year, a 50 percent federal penalty tax will apply to the undistributed required amount. This penalty tax would be in addition to regular income tax.

Post-death distribution options for designated beneficiaries

Remember, only individuals who meet certain requirements can be designated beneficiaries of an IRA or retirement plan account. The post-death distribution options available to designated beneficiaries generally include one or more of the following.

Life expectancy method

This method involves taking distributions over a beneficiary’s single life expectancy (or, in some cases, over the deceased account owner’s remaining single life expectancy). This is typically the “default” payout method for designated beneficiaries under the final rules, regardless of whether the IRA owner or plan participant died before or after the required beginning date for minimum distributions (unless plan provisions specify otherwise). The distributions must begin no later than December 31 of the year following the year of the IRA owner’s or plan participant’s death.

Five-year rule

This method involves taking distributions in any amount and at any time within a five-year period. The five-year period ends on December 31 of the year during which the fifth anniversary of the IRA owner’s or plan participant’s death occurs. If there is no designated beneficiary and the death occurred before the required beginning date, the five-year rule is the default rule under the final regulations. In other cases, the life expectancy method is the default rule. However, a designated beneficiary can often still elect the five-year rule as an alternative payout method. From a tax standpoint, it is usually not as desirable as the life expectancy method.

Lump-sum distribution

This distribution method involves withdrawing a beneficiary’s entire interest in an inherited IRA or retirement plan account within one tax year. This can take the form of a single distribution of the entire interest, or multiple distributions spread over the one-year period. In most cases, any designated beneficiary can elect a lump-sum distribution of his or her share of an inherited IRA or plan account. However, other post-death payout options are typically available, and will usually be more attractive from a tax standpoint. A lump-sum distribution can have very undesirable tax consequences.

Roll over the remaining interest

This special post-death option is available only to surviving spouses who are designated beneficiaries. It involves “rolling over” the surviving spouse’s interest in the inherited IRA or plan account to the spouse’s own IRA or plan. A surviving spouse can generally elect this option regardless of whether the IRA owner or plan participant had begun taking lifetime required minimum distributions (RMDs). Once in the spouse’s IRA or plan, the funds continue to grow tax deferred, and distributions need not begin until the spouse’s own required beginning date. Also, the spouse can name beneficiaries of his or her choice.

Disclaim the inherited funds

Any designated beneficiary can opt to disclaim his or her share of the inherited IRA or plan account. Disclaiming simply means refusing to accept the inherited funds, allowing them to pass to another individual or entity (i.e., a secondary beneficiary). A qualified disclaimer must be completed within nine months of the date of death. This nine-month deadline usually occurs before the September 30 next-year date. Disclaiming sometimes makes sense for tax and/or personal reasons.

Post-death distribution options for nondesignated beneficiaries

Charities and estates can be beneficiaries of an IRA or retirement plan account, but they cannot be designated beneficiaries because they are not individuals. In addition, individuals who are beneficiaries of an IRA or plan may not qualify as designated beneficiaries under certain conditions. The post-death distribution options available to nondesignated beneficiaries generally include one or more of the following.

Five-year rule

If an IRA owner or retirement plan participant dies before his or her required beginning date for lifetime RMDs, and there are no designated beneficiaries on the account, required post-death distributions generally must be taken according to the five-year rule.

Distributions over the account owner’s remaining life expectancy

If an IRA owner or retirement plan participant dies on or after his or her required beginning date for lifetime RMDs, and there are no designated beneficiaries on the account, required post-death distributions generally must be taken over the account owner’s remaining single life expectancy (calculated in the year of death according to IRS life expectancy tables, up to a maximum of 17 years).

Lump-sum distribution

As an alternative to either of the above payout methods, a nondesignated beneficiary (just as a designated beneficiary) generally has the option of receiving a lump-sum distribution of the inherited IRA or plan funds. Again, though, this may not be advisable from a tax standpoint.

Disclaim the inherited funds

As an alternative to any of the above payout methods, a nondesignated beneficiary (just as a designated beneficiary) generally has the option of disclaiming inherited IRA or retirement plan funds.

Nonspouse rollover to an inherited IRA–The Pension Protection Act of 2006

A spouse beneficiary can roll over death benefits received from an employer-sponsored retirement plan to either the spouse’s own IRA, or to an IRA established in the deceased’s name with the spouse as beneficiary (an “inherited IRA”). In the past, neither of these options was available to nonspouse beneficiaries. While nonspouse beneficiaries still can not roll over inherited funds from an employer plan to their own IRA, the Pension Protection Act of 2006 lets a nonspouse beneficiary make a direct (trustee to trustee) rollover from a 401(k), 403(b), or governmental 457(b) plan to an inherited IRA, for distributions after 2006. If a nonspouse beneficiary elects a direct rollover, the amount directly rolled over is not includible in gross income in the year of the distribution.

The ability to make a rollover to an IRA is significant because employer plans often require faster payouts to nonspouse beneficiaries than the law requires, accelerating taxation for these individuals. IRAs on the other hand generally allow distributions to be spread over the maximum period permitted by law, permitting tax deferral for the longest period of time. The IRS has recently provided guidance on nonspouse rollovers from employer sponsored plans to IRAs. IRS Notice 2007-7 provides that:

  • The IRA must be established in a manner that identifies it as an inherited IRA, and also identifies the deceased employee and the beneficiary, for example, “Tom Smith as beneficiary of John Smith.”
  • An indirect rollover–where the beneficiary receives the distribution and then rolls the funds over to an IRA within 60 days–is not allowed
  • A plan can make a direct rollover to an IRA on behalf of a trust where the trust is the deceased employee’s named beneficiary, provided the beneficiaries of the trust can be treated as designated beneficiaries under IRS required minimum distribution (RMD) rules, and the trust is identified as the IRA beneficiary.
  • The nonspouse beneficiary can’t roll over RMDs to the inherited IRA.

The Notice provides complex rules for determining both the RMDs ineligible for rollover from the employer plan, and the RMDs required from the IRA after the rollover:

  1. The employee dies before his or her required beginning date, and the 5 year rule applies. Under the 5-year rule, no amount has to be distributed by the retirement plan to the beneficiary until the end of the fifth calendar year following the year of the employee’s death. In that year, the entire remaining amount that the beneficiary is entitled to under the plan must be distributed. Notice 2007-7 provides that the beneficiary can directly roll over his or her entire benefit until the end of the fourth year. On or after January 1 of the fifth year following the year in which the employee died, no amount payable to the beneficiary is eligible for rollover. Most importantly, Notice 2007-7 provides that if the beneficiary was subject to the 5-year rule in the employer plan, the 5-year rule will continue to apply to for purposes of determining RMDs from the inherited IRA after the rollover.

However, even where the 5-year rule applies, a special rule allows a nonspouse beneficiary to determine the RMD under the employer plan using the life expectancy rule, roll the balance over to an inherited IRA, and continue to take RMDs from the IRA using the life expectancy rule–which provides the maximum tax deferral for the beneficiary. To use this special rule the rollover must occur no later than the end of the year following the year in which the employee dies.

Example(s):     Sam, a participant in his employer’s 401(k) plan, dies on June 1, 2011. The 401(k) plan provides that beneficiaries must receive their entire balance from the plan under the five year rule. Therefore June, Sam’s beneficiary, must receive the entire balance no later than December 31, 2016. June would like to defer taxes on her inherited funds for as long as possible. If she makes a direct rollover to an inherited IRA by December 31, 2012, she will be able to use the life expectancy rule, rather than the 5-year rule, when calculating her RMDs from the IRA. Her rollover must be reduced by the amount of RMDs that would have been required under the employer plan using the life expectancy rule. If June fails to make her rollover by December 31, 2012, then she will still be able to make a rollover to an inherited IRA (no later than December 31, 2015), but will have to continue to use the five year rule when calculating her RMDs from the IRA. That is, she will still be required to receive all the funds in the inherited IRA no later than December 31, 2016.

  1. The employee dies before his or her required beginning date, and the life expectancy rule applies. If the life expectancy rule applies, the amount ineligible for rollover includes all undistributed RMDs for the year in which the direct rollover occurs and any prior year. After the rollover, the life expectancy rule continues to apply in determining RMDs from the inherited IRA. RMDs are determined using the same applicable distribution period as would have been used under the employer plan if the direct rollover had not occurred.
  1. The employee dies on or after his or her required beginning date. If an employee dies on or after his or her required beginning date, the amount ineligible for rollover includes all undistributed RMDs for the year in which the direct rollover occurs and any prior year, including years before the employee’s death. After the rollover, the life expectancy rule continues to apply in determining RMDs from the inherited IRA. The RMD under the IRA for any year after the employee’s death must be determined using the same applicable distribution period as would have been used under the employer plan if the direct rollover had not occurred.

Securities offered through Securities America Inc., Member FINRA/SIPC and advisory services offered through Securities America Advisors, Inc. Armstrong Advisory Group and the Securities America companies are unaffiliated. Representatives of Securities America, Inc. do not provide legal or tax advice. Prepared by Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. Copyright 2014.  Please consult with a local attorney or tax advisor who is familiar with the particular laws of your state. March 2015 – AT #1126405.1