I Inherited a Roth IRA. Now what?

My Comments: More and more people have Roth IRA accounts. A common question about retirement is whether to draw money from their Roth IRA first or take money from their non-Roth retirement accounts first.

It depends. Any money not yet taxed is going to get taxed. Period. The Roth IRA money comes out tax free; the taxes have already been paid. If your non-spouse beneficiary is in a high tax bracket, it may be better for them to get it in the form of Roth money.

Most beneficiaries are simply happy to get unexpected money. If they have to pay tax, it’s not an issue. You can run a million scenarios and when all is said and done, it makes little difference in the grand scheme of things.

June 28, 2013 by Dan Moisand at MarketWatch.com

When you inherit retirement plans, the rules for how those funds are taxed and the options available to the beneficiary vary based on the type of account and whether the beneficiary is a spouse or not.

Today I explain to a non-spouse beneficiary some of the rules that apply to inheriting a Roth IRA. I also answer a reader question about one way to increase her Social Security payments even though she started taking benefits early at a reduced rate.

Q. My Dad is 74, and he has a ROTH IRA as well as a 401(k). When he passes away, my mom will inherit the retirement accounts, and then we his sons will. My question is can I, as a non spouse beneficiary, rollover the ROTH IRA into my personal ROTH IRA? — C.B.

A. No you cannot roll the Roth IRA money into your personal Roth IRA. Only spouses may do that. If your mother rolls the Roth IRA into her own Roth IRA, it is treated as though she had always been the owner of those funds, so those funds will continue to be exempt from Required Minimum Distributions (RMD), an attractive feature of Roth IRA’s. Also, she would name the beneficiaries. It is important to check that the beneficiary designations on all accounts match the wishes of the current account owners.

The beneficiary designation trumps anything written in one’s will or trust agreements. I saw a case in which the wife had a small IRA that named her church as primary beneficiary. When her husband died, she rolled his account into her IRA but did not change her beneficiary designation. When she passed away, the church was entitled to all of the funds. This was an unpleasant surprise to the beneficiaries.

You have two basic options as a non-spouse inheritor; take a lump sum or, transfer the funds into an account titled as an “inherited Roth IRA.” Taking the lump sum is pretty simple. The lump sum you receive is not subject to tax. Once you get your check, if you wish to invest any part of it, it will be taxed just like funds in any other non-retirement account.

Most inheritors with an eye on the long term prefer to rollover the money to an inherited Roth IRA. The assets continue to grow untaxed, you can choose your own beneficiaries and withdrawals are tax free.

You cannot, however, let all the account just sit in the inherited Roth IRA. By Dec. 31 of the year after the year in which the owner died, you must have begun taking required minimum distributions (RMD) annually. If you don’t make the RMD by that deadline, you will need to have withdrawn all the assets by the end of the fifth year after the year of death.

The RMD you will be subject to is based upon the IRS’s single life expectancy table. The value of the account on Dec. 31 of the year death is divided by the beneficiary’s life expectancy listed on that table to obtain the first RMD amount. For example, if you are 55 at the time, the table says your life expectancy is 29.6, you would divide the Dec. 31 value by 29.6. In the following year, you use the following Dec. 31 value and divide by one less year (28.6). The next year, use the value as of the next Dec. 31 and 27.6.

You mentioned you had brothers. There is one more step to consider. If your mom lists more than one person as beneficiary, you should have the shares of the account separated into individual inherited Roth IRAs by Dec. 31 of the year following the year of death. This enables each beneficiary to use their own life expectancy. Otherwise, distributions are calculated based upon the oldest beneficiary’s age causing distributions to occur faster than necessary.

This can be particularly important with non-Roth retirement money like a 401(k) in which distributions are taxable. Generally, beneficiaries wish to have the smallest RMD’s possible in order to control taxation better. A beneficiary can always take more than the RMD but the lower the minimum, the more flexibility in tax planning.

Again, make sure all the beneficiary designations on all accounts reflect the owner’s wishes. It should be noted that the rules are different if any of the beneficiaries are beneficiaries through a trust that is named as beneficiary of a retirement account. Naming a trust can be helpful but if not done correctly, can result in an acceleration of taxation.

Also, to accommodate an account holder’s specific wishes, many attorneys prepare customized beneficiary designations. Not all 401(k) plans will accept customized beneficiary designations so many will roll those funds into a traditional IRA.

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