For many people, retirement accounts, including 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), are their most significant assets. While you may think you’ll need every bit of money in those accounts for your retirement, what would happen if you die at an early age? You should include them in your estate plan so heirs inherit them with minimum estate and income tax effects.
Some strategies to consider include:
Review your beneficiary designations.
These assets are distributed based on beneficiary designations, not your will or other estate planning documents. Thus, you should name primary as well as contingent beneficiaries. Make sure you understand how your assets will be distributed if a primary beneficiary dies before you do. For instance, if your primary beneficiaries are your children and one child dies before you, do you want that child’s share to go to that child’s children or to your remaining children? Review your beneficiary designations after major life changes, such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child.
Consider rolling your 401(k) plan assets over to an IRA.
Your heirs have more flexibility when making withdrawals from an IRA. With a 401(k) plan, heirs typically must withdraw all funds within five years, while withdrawals can be made over their life expectancy with an IRA. As long as the rollover is handled properly, there are no income tax ramifications of the rollover.
Split an IRA when there are multiple beneficiaries.
When there is more than one non-spousal beneficiary for an inherited IRA, distributions must be taken over the oldest beneficiary’s life expectancy. By splitting the IRA into separate accounts, each beneficiary can take distributions over his/her life expectancy. Separating accounts is especially important when one of the beneficiaries is not an individual or qualifying trust, such as a charitable organization. If you die before required distributions begin at age 70 1/2, the entire balance must be paid out in five years. If you die after required distributions begin, the balance must be paid out over your remaining life expectancy. When the account is split, each individual beneficiary can take distributions over his/her life expectancy.
Make sure your spouse understands the rules for inheriting your IRA.
Your spouse should be careful not to roll the balance over to a spousal IRA too quickly. Once the balance is rolled over, some planning opportunities are lost. For instance, spouses under age 59 1/2 can make withdrawals from the original IRA without paying the 10% federal income tax penalty. Once the account is rolled over, withdrawals before age 59 1/2 would result in a 10% federal income tax penalty. Also, spouses who are older than the original owner can delay distributions by retaining the IRA. The surviving spouse does not have to take distributions until the deceased spouse would have attained age 70 1/2, even if the surviving spouse is past that age. The spouse may want to disclaim a portion of the IRA, which must be done within nine months of the original owner’s death. If the account is rolled over, that disclaimer can’t be made. Thus, it is usually best for the surviving spouse to determine his/her financial needs before rolling over the IRA balance
Consider rolling your traditional IRA balances over to a Roth IRA.
While you must meet income eligibility requirements to do so and pay income taxes on the taxable amount of the conversion, those taxes can be paid with funds outside the IRA. That preserves the IRA’s value and reduces your taxable estate. Then, your heirs will receive qualified distributions free from income taxes, including any future appreciation on the balance
Teach your heirs the benefits of stretching out withdrawals from inherited IRAs.
After an IRA is inherited, a traditional deductible IRA still retains its tax-deferred growth and a Roth IRA retains its tax-free growth. Your heirs should extend this growth for as long as possible. If the IRA has a designated beneficiary, which includes individuals and certain trusts, the balance can be paid out over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. Spouses have additional options which can stretch payments even longer. Your heirs can also elect to take the entire balance immediately, paying any income taxes due. Make sure to stress to heirs the importance of taking withdrawals as slowly as possible.