Income Tax Burdens for the Non-Spouse Beneficiary

Have you heard about a “stretch IRA” and wondered if it was some special kind of IRA? Well, it isn’t. In the simplest terms, a stretch IRA is an IRA that has a beneficiary designation that provides for the possibility of maintaining the tax deferred status of the IRA after the death of the IRA owner. You might be thinking, “I wish I had a stretch IRA. I only named my spouse as my primary beneficiary and my kids as my successor or contingent beneficiary.” Well, guess what? You have a stretch IRA. After your death, your spouse and/or your children could continue to defer income taxes for many years after your death, as long as they are prudent and only take the annual minimum required distributions mandated by law.

While the “stretch” concept applies to some retirement plans, many heirs of 401k owners could be in for a rude awakening if their parents fail to plan properly.

With proper planning you can put in place the mechanisms to stretch taxable distributions from an inherited IRA and certain retirement plans for decades, sometimes as long as 80 years after the original owner dies. If, however, the employer’s retirement plan document stipulates the wrong provisions, the stretch may be replaced by a screaming income tax disaster. The heirs could be in for a tax nightmare if Dad never transferred his retirement plan into an IRA.

Many investors fail to realize that the specific plan rules that govern their individual 401k or other retirement plan take precedence over the IRS distribution rules for inherited IRAs or retirement plans.

The distribution rules that come into play at the death of the retirement plan owner are usually found in a plan document that few employees or advisors ever read. Many, if not most plan documents say that in the event of death, a non-spouse beneficiary must receive (and pay tax on) the entire balance of the retirement plan the year after the death of the retirement plan owner. These retirement plans don’t allow a non-spouse beneficiary to stretch distributions. For example, if there is a $1 million balance, the non-spouse heir or heirs will have to pay income taxes on $1 million. Then, the remaining balance, roughly $650,000 ($1 million minus the $350,000 immediate income tax hit) would be outside of the tax-deferred protection of an inherited IRA.

Had the 401k participant taken that money and transferred it into an IRA before he died, the non-spouse beneficiary would have been able to stretch the distributions based on his or her life expectancy. Failing to make the IRA transfer will result in an unnecessary massive income tax burden for the non-spouse beneficiary.

Written by James Lange, IRA expert and author of Retire Secure! He has developed tax-savvy retirement and estate plans for over 1400 U.S. citizens with appreciable assets in their IRAs and 401(k) plans. Sign up for his monthly Retire Secure newsletter at www.paytaxeslater.com.

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