Individual Retirement Accounts, or “IRA”, were established under federal law as an incentive for workers to set aside savings for their retirement. You can create and fund your own IRA and defer payment of income tax on the contributions until years later, when they are withdrawn. Meanwhile, the appreciation in value of this money is also tax deferred until withdrawn. This allows the fund to grow faster since taxes are not taken out every year, as occurs with most other investments. One noted authority, Natalie Choate, has described this as an interest-free loan from the government. Consequently, over the span of one’s working career, the fund can grow substantially upon retirement.

The expectation at the time IRA were established under federal tax law was that the funds set aside in an IRA would be needed and used up gradually, over retirement, and that the income tax bite on drawing out the funds would be less severe because the account holder, in retirement, would be in a lower income tax bracket since no longer working.  The reality, for many retirees over the years has been that little or none of the IRA is needed.  But the money can’t be pulled out too fast because much of it will be lost due to high income tax. Consequently, many large IRA pass to the next generation by way of inheritance. But unlike other inheritances, which pass to beneficiaries free of income tax, funds drawn from an Inherited IRA are taxed as regular income. The rules regarding how and when funds from an Inherited IRA must be withdrawn are very complicated. Here’s what you need to know.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act, which went into effect in 2020, changed how beneficiaries of inherited retirement accounts must withdraw these funds. The Act’s passage made it more difficult for individuals to pass their retirement savings on to their heirs without tax liability.

The 10-Year Rule

Generally speaking, beneficiaries of retirement plan accounts and Individual Retirement Accounts are subject to required minimum distribution (RMD) rules. Most people who inherit this type of retirement account now must withdraw all the funds from that account within 10 years. Exceptions to this include the following:

  • Spouse of the original account owner
  • Minor children of the original account owner
  • Individuals with disabilities or chronic illness
  • Beneficiaries who are not more than 10 years younger than the original account owner

Why the 10-Year Time Limit?

Previous to this new rule, you had the option of withdrawing a small amount from an inherited retirement account each year. You could then leave the remainder to continue growing – tax-free – for as long as you lived. That is, the heirs could “stretch” the life of the account over time (this is where the phrase “stretch IRA” originates). From the perspective of Uncle Sam, stretch IRAs have meant less tax revenue.

Now that heirs must empty inherited retirement accounts within 10 years, the timeframe for paying taxes on them is more immediate. That is, they are paying taxes on the entire account over a decade instead of over the course of their lifetime. This 10-year period is also more desirable to the IRS for another reason. The funds are less likely to remain in this type of account, growing tax-free, for the next generation of heirs.

Rethinking How Your Retirement Funds Will Pass to Your Heirs

For many people receiving this type of inheritance, they are often at their greatest or highest income-earning period. As a result, because they are not allowed to delay withdrawing money from these accounts, they may be pushed into a higher tax bracket. In turn, that means they will likely have to pay more in taxes. You may want to help your heirs avoid this.

Given the new 10-year rule and tax implications, many people have been rethinking their estate plans. They are considering options that will help minimize taxes paid by their loved ones. One such option is converting retirement accounts to Roth IRAs.

What Is a Roth IRA and Why Might Converting Be an Attractive Option?

Roth IRAs are retirement accounts funded with post-tax funds. In other words, you have already paid taxes on the funds in the account prior to depositing them. Once the money is in a Roth IRA, it grows tax-free, and those who inherit it receive it tax-free.

For many seniors, this can be an attractive option. Although you will have to pay taxes upfront on the amount you are converting into a Roth IRA, you will likely be taxed at a lower tax rate if you are in your lower income-producing years.

Note, however, that the 10-year rule still applies to heirs (as do the exceptions).

Other Rules You Should Keep in Mind

In addition, there are other “rules” you should be aware of when considering this conversion option. One is that a successful conversion must occur within 60 days. In other words, you must transfer or roll over your retirement account funds within 60 days to the intended Roth IRA account.

The “five-year” rule is another important rule worth understanding. Under this rule, any funds you take out of the Roth IRA may be subject to income tax if the account is less than five years old when you make a withdrawal. So, if you anticipate needing these funds in the near term, then a Roth IRA conversion may not be for you.

Meanwhile, if you die less than five years after converting to this type of account, the beneficiary you named will miss out on the favorable tax treatment. That is, they will have no choice but to pay taxes on the funds they inherit through your Roth IRA account. Bearing this in mind, you may opt against converting to a Roth IRA if your life expectancy is under five years.

When to Consider a Roth IRA Conversion

You may decide a Roth IRA conversion is right for you. If so, you should consider when is an ideal time to put it into action. Generally, the best time to consider a Roth IRA conversion would be right after retirement but before you start taking RMDs. This is because you will usually be in a lower tax bracket during this time period.

Note that recent legislation (the SECURE 2.0 Act) increased the age at which you must start RMDs. As of January 1, 2023, you now have until age 73 to implement this option. The RMD age is due to change yet again, to age 75, in 2033.

Additionally, the original owner of a Roth IRA is not subject to RMDs for the Roth IRA. So, if you are the account owner and don’t yet need to access the funds, you do not have to withdraw them. You can bypass the RMD requirements that would have been in effect in the account from which you are converting.

Connect With Your Attorney

Conversions to Roth IRAs are not appropriate for everyone. This option can be a very effective way to leave your retirement funds tax-free to your loved ones. However, there are many moving parts to consider.

In fact, the rule changes have confused so many taxpayers that the IRS delayed some of them for inherited retirement accounts.

George Vasiliadis, a lawyer with the law firm of Vasiliadis Pappas, cautions that “the issue of whether and when to convert a traditional IRA into a Roth IRA should take into account estate and long-term care planning issues unique to your own family situation.” The lawyers at Vasiliadis Pappas can help you understand the process, the potential tax consequences, and what it means for your estate plan and heirs. Call us.