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Last Updated on November 30, 2023

The realm of individual retirement accounts (IRAs) can be complex, even more so when an IRA is inherited. Inheriting an IRA can mean dealing with a variety of rules and regulations, which may vary depending on your relationship with the deceased owner. This guide will provide a detailed overview of inherited IRA rules, strategies, and factors to consider to help you make informed decisions.

What is an Inherited IRA?

An inherited IRA, often referred to as a beneficiary IRA, is a retirement account that has been passed on to a beneficiary after the original account holder’s death. While the primary purpose of an IRA is to provide retirement income for the account holder, an inherited IRA allows those funds to be transferred to a beneficiary, preserving the account’s tax-advantaged status and potentially extending its growth over a longer period.

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How an Inherited IRA Works

An inherited IRA operates in distinct ways from a regular IRA, with unique rules and considerations. To enhance your comprehension of this complex topic, the following points detail the primary mechanics of inherited IRAs.

Ownership Transfer

  • Upon the death of the original IRA owner, the funds within the account are transferred to the beneficiary or beneficiaries.
  • The transfer process typically involves the completion of paperwork with the financial institution holding the IRA.
  • Once the transfer is complete, the beneficiary effectively owns the IRA, often referred to as an inherited or beneficiary IRA.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

  • The IRS mandates that beneficiaries begin taking distributions from an inherited IRA within a certain timeframe.
  • The timing and amount of these RMDs depend on:
    • The beneficiary’s relationship to the original account holder.
    • The type of IRA (traditional or Roth).
    • The age of the original account holder at the time of death (in some cases).

Differences for Spouse and Non-Spouse Beneficiaries

  • If the beneficiary is the spouse of the deceased, they have the option to treat the IRA as their own, delaying RMDs until age 72.
  • Non-spouse beneficiaries must typically begin taking distributions by the end of the year following the account holder’s death, or deplete the account entirely within 10 years.

Tax Considerations

  • RMDs from inherited IRAs are subject to income tax, with the rate depending on the beneficiary’s total income and tax bracket for the year.
  • Taxes are applied only upon distribution, allowing the remainder of the IRA to continue growing tax-deferred or, for Roth IRAs, potentially tax-free.
  • A penalty of 50% of the amount that should have been distributed can be imposed by the IRS for failing to take RMDs as required.

Implications for Financial and Estate Planning

  • The inherited IRA can significantly increase the beneficiary’s assets, potentially impacting estate values and tax liabilities.
  • Depending on the size of the IRA, it may have implications for estate taxes and inheritance planning.
  • Beneficiaries should consider the inherited IRA in the context of their overall financial strategy.

While an inherited IRA can present significant financial advantages, it also carries specific rules and considerations that impact the account’s value and your tax liabilities. Understanding these rules and effectively integrating the inherited IRA into your broader financial plan is vital for maximizing its potential benefits.

Inherited IRA Rules for Spouses

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The rules for inherited IRAs can vary significantly based on your relationship with the original account holder. As a spouse, you are offered the most options when it comes to managing an inherited IRA. Understanding these options and their implications can help you to make informed decisions and maximize the financial benefits of your inheritance.

Option 1: Treat the IRA as Your Own

  • As a surviving spouse, you can elect to treat the inherited IRA as if it were your own. This includes designating yourself as the account owner or rolling the inherited IRA into an existing IRA that you own.
  • If you choose this option, the IRA assets continue to grow tax-deferred or tax-free (for Roth IRAs), and RMDs aren’t required until you reach the age of 72 (assuming you were not already 72 at the time of inheritance).
  • This approach can be beneficial if you are not yet of retirement age and do not need the IRA assets to cover immediate expenses, allowing for a longer period of potential tax-advantaged growth.

Option 2: Transfer Assets to an Inherited IRA Account

  • You also have the option to transfer the assets to an inherited IRA in your name.
  • Under this option, you must begin taking RMDs by December 31 of the year following the original owner’s death, regardless of your age.
  • This approach could be advantageous if you need income before reaching the age of 59.5 and wish to avoid the early withdrawal penalty.

Option 3: Disclaiming the Inherited IRA

  • If you do not need the funds from the inherited IRA, you may choose to disclaim all or part of the assets.
  • Disclaiming the IRA effectively passes the assets to the contingent (alternate) beneficiaries named by the original account holder.
  • This approach can be used as a strategic estate planning tool to redirect assets to other beneficiaries, such as children or grandchildren, while minimizing potential estate taxes.

These are the primary options for spouses inheriting an IRA, each with their distinct tax implications and strategic considerations. Before making a decision, it’s crucial to assess your current financial situation, future needs, and tax implications. Consulting with a financial advisor or tax professional can be invaluable in navigating this complex landscape.

Inherited IRA Rules for Non-Spouses

When a non-spouse individual – such as a child, grandchild, sibling, friend, or other relative – inherits an IRA, the options for handling the account are less flexible compared to those for a spouse. However, understanding these options and the associated rules can help non-spouse beneficiaries maximize the inherited account’s value and minimize potential tax implications.

Option 1: Transfer Assets to an Inherited IRA

  • Non-spouse beneficiaries can transfer the inherited assets into an inherited IRA, also known as a beneficiary IRA.
  • Under this option, the inherited IRA remains in the deceased account holder’s name for the benefit of the non-spouse beneficiary.
  • The account continues to grow tax-deferred or tax-free (in the case of a Roth IRA).

Distribution Rules

  • Previously, non-spouse beneficiaries could stretch out the distributions over their lifetime, extending the tax advantages over many years. This was often referred to as a “stretch IRA”.
  • However, with the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, non-spouse beneficiaries must fully withdraw all assets from the inherited IRA within 10 years of the original owner’s death. This rule is commonly known as the 10-year rule.
  • Notably, there are no specific annual required minimum distributions (RMDs) during the 10-year period. Non-spouse beneficiaries can strategically choose when to make withdrawals based on their tax situation.
  • There are exceptions to the 10-year rule for eligible designated beneficiaries such as disabled or chronically ill individuals, individuals who are not more than 10 years younger than the decedent, and certain minor children of the decedent.

Tax Considerations

  • Distributions from an inherited traditional IRA are typically subject to income tax in the year of withdrawal.
  • Inherited Roth IRA distributions are usually tax-free, as long as the account was held by the original owner for at least five years before their death.
  • Failure to withdraw all assets from the inherited IRA within the 10-year period can result in a 50% tax penalty on the remaining balance.

These are the main considerations for non-spouse beneficiaries of an inherited IRA. Navigating these rules can be complex, and the best course of action depends on various factors including your financial needs, tax situation, and the type of inherited IRA. Consulting with a financial or tax advisor can help ensure that you make informed decisions that align with your financial goals.

Inherited IRA Rules: 8 Factors to Consider

When you inherit an IRA, understanding the associated rules is critical. However, there are additional factors to consider that can significantly impact the inherited account’s value and your overall financial and tax planning strategy. Here are eight important elements to consider:

1. Spouses Get the Best Deal

Spouses inheriting IRAs have the most flexibility in handling the account. They can treat the inherited IRA as their own, roll it over into an existing IRA, or transfer it to an inherited IRA account. Non-spouse beneficiaries have fewer options, with the primary one being transferring assets to an inherited IRA.

2. Consider a Precious Metals IRA Rollover

If the inherited IRA is a precious metals IRA, which holds investments in physical gold or other precious metals, you could consider rolling it over into a similar IRA under your name. It’s essential to understand the specific rules and potential tax implications related to this type of investment.

3. Deciding When to Withdraw Your Money

The timing of your withdrawals can significantly impact the account’s value and your tax liabilities. If you are a non-spouse beneficiary, remember the 10-year rule established by the SECURE Act, which requires full withdrawal of the account within a decade.

4. Consider Year-of-Death Required Distributions

If the original account holder was taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) and hadn’t taken the RMD for the year of death when they passed away, you need to withdraw that amount by the end of the year. Otherwise, you may face a 50% penalty on the amount that should have been withdrawn.

5. Know About the Tax Break Coming to You

Inherited IRAs can come with a tax break, the Income in Respect of a Decedent (IRD) deduction. This allows you to deduct any estate taxes paid on the IRA’s portion of the estate, potentially reducing your tax liability.

6. Don’t Ignore Beneficiary Forms

Beneficiary forms play a crucial role in determining who inherits an IRA, often superseding wills. Keep these forms updated to avoid potential legal disputes and ensure the IRA is inherited by the intended recipients.

7. Improperly Drafted Trusts Can Be Bad News

If you’re considering passing your IRA to a trust, ensure it is properly drafted to meet legal requirements. Improperly drafted trusts can result in immediate taxation of the IRA and eliminate the possibility of stretching out distributions.

8. A Roth IRA Can Help You Make the Most of Potential Tax Issues

If you inherit a Roth IRA, qualified distributions are tax-free. This is a significant advantage, as the original owner already paid taxes on the contributions, allowing for tax-free growth and withdrawals.

These eight factors, along with understanding the core rules of inherited IRAs, are critical in managing your inheritance effectively and aligning it with your overall financial strategy. Always consider seeking advice from a financial advisor or tax professional to navigate the complexities of inherited IRAs.


Inheriting an IRA can offer a financial windfall, but it also comes with complex rules and decisions that can impact your tax liability and the inherited account’s value.

Whether you’re a spouse or non-spouse beneficiary, understanding the various inherited IRA rules and the factors that can influence your strategy will help you make the most of your inheritance while minimizing tax burdens.

Always consult with a financial advisor or tax professional to better navigate this complex landscape.

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