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Right Way to Handle Inherited IRA Accounts

An inherited IRA can solve your retirement problem if you handle it right.There’s a right way and a wrong way to deal with inherited IRA accounts.

And in this blog post, I want to talk in general terms about the right way to handle inherited IRA accounts.

I will also point out some other resources you can tap for more detailed information.

TIP #1: Take RMDs from Inherited IRA Accounts

A first tip amounts to a housekeeping point: In general, you will need to take required minimum distributions from any IRA accounts you inherit. (If you don’t, the IRS hits you with excise tax penalties which can add up.)

You essentially calculate the required minimum distribution by dividing the beginning of the year balance by your remaining life expectancy. If you get an account with a $50,000 balance and your life expectancy equals another 50 years, you need to take at least $1,000 from the IRA account that year.

If the next year the account balance equals (say) $55,000 and your life expectancy equals 49.5 years, you calculate the required minimum distribution as $1,111 using the following formula:

$55,000 / 49.5

By the way? You can take more money out of an inherited IRA than the required minimum distribution. But you need to take at least the required minimum distribution amount in order to avoid those penalties.

Also, this complicating factor: If you inherit an IRA from your husband or wife, you can choose to not treat the IRA as an inherited IRA but rather as your own IRA. And usually that’s what you would want to do. But see the next tip for why I say this.

TIP #2: Move Money into Your Own IRA or 401(k)

Now I need to be clear about this: In general, you can’t simply transfer money from an inherited IRA account directly into your own IRA account. That doesn’t work.

Note: Spouses can basically do this. But I’m not talking about that situation here. I’m talking about a child or grandchild or some other person inheriting an IRA.

But here’s what you can sometimes do–and probably should do if you can. If you’ve got earned income or work someplace with a 401(k) or Simple-IRA plan, you should probably use the money from an inherited IRA to bump your own IRA or 401(k) contributions.

For example, if you take $1,000 from an inherited IRA and then bump up your IRA contribution by $1,000, you have in effect moved the money.

This movement of money from one account to another won’t have any immediate tax effect. The money from the inherited IRA counts as income. The contribution to your own IRA works as a deduction. In the end, they should net out to having “zero” income tax impact on your tax return.

But you’ll in effect “leave” the money in an IRA account so it’s there for your own retirement some day. You want to do this.

TIP #3: Look for Matching Money

Do you or your spouse (if you’re married) work someplace where contributions to an employer-provided retirement plan also gets you a “matching” contribution?

Here’s what you must do: You need to use the money you pull out of the inherited IRA to grab that match.

For example, if you need to pull $1,000 out of an inherited IRA, but you can use that money to contribute $1,000 to an employer plan with a 50% or 100% match, you get an immediate risk-free return on your investing.

A 401(k) plan with a 50% matching contribution immediately grows your $1,000 to $1,500 for example.

A Simple-IRA plan with a 100% matching contribution immediately grows your $1,000 to $2,000.

Grabbing employer matching contributions you would not otherwise get–say because cash flow is tight–massively jacks up the retirement account balance you end up with. The calculations are a little complicated, but you can pretty easily bump your ending balance by 40% or more.

Note: With a 40% bump in your ending balance, a $50,000 inherited IRA that might otherwise grow to say $200,000 by the time you retire might instead grow to $280,000.

TIP #4: Move Inherited IRA Money as Fast as You Can

If you need to use inherited IRA money to grab employer matching contributions, that’s probably most important.

But if you’ve got that handled or were already maximizing your employer match, here’s something else you want to do: Move the money as fast as you can.

I say this for a couple of awkward reasons. (Sorry.)

First, the money in a regular IRA is very protected from creditors.

Even in a worst case scenario where creditors have sued you and gotten a judgement, the money in a regular IRA account gets quite a bit of protection. Almost no creditors, typically, can get at that money.

However, creditors can get at money you’ve got stored in an inherited IRA account. That money is essentially treated like just another “bank” account.

A second awkward reason to move the money as fast as you (again, subject to grabbing all the matching money from employers you can get): You may inherit another IRA account… and this trick of siphoning off money from inherited IRA account into your own “real” IRA account doesn’t work as well if you find yourself needing to move lots of money from multiple accounts (or from a single big account).

Yes, you can move $5,500 to $6,500 into an IRA each year. Simple-IRA contributions run $12,500 to $15,500 annually per person. 401(k) contributions run $18,500 to $24,000 annually. (Double these amounts, potentially, if you’re married).

But a big inherited IRA could push you to take RMDs larger than these amounts.

The way to minimize this predicament? Again, subject to the matching issue just mentioned, do move the money as fast as you can.

If matching contributions don’t apply and you’re married, maybe you move enough money to fill up both IRA accounts (so $11,000 to $13,000 a year). Even if the RMD amount is only $2,000 a year.

TIP #5: Disclaim inherited IRA Balances You Don’t Need

A final tip: If you inherit an IRA account you don’t need—say you’ve got your retirement taken care—consider disclaiming the IRA account if disclaiming results in you transferring money to your heirs (probably your kids).

The kids can then try to siphon the money out of the inherited account and into their retirement accounts using the gambits described above.

One caution: Disclaiming something like an IRA can get complicated.

If you and your two brothers are the primary beneficiaries on, say, a parent’s IRA account and you inherit and disclaim, probably your two brothers share the IRA balance. Your share does not, in other words, go to your heirs.

But here’s another example: If you are listed as the single primary beneficiary on a parent’s IRA and you disclaim, probably the IRA balance goes to the secondary beneficiary which might be your kids.

Bottomline: Be really careful if you disclaim. Ask the custodian for help. Consult a tax or estate attorney if you have any question. But do consider this option.

P.S. Be sure to send them a link to this blog post.

Some Additional Resources

The IRS website provides good granular detail about inherited IRAs here.

We’ve got some additional information about Roth-style accounts here: Are Roth 401(k)s and Roth IRA accounts really a good idea.

Finally, if you run your own small business, you probably ought to think about how the new Sec. 199A deduction changes your retirement planning options.

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