Inherited IRAs: Rules, Options, and Tax Implications for Beneficiaries


Unlocking the Wealth Legacy: A Comprehensive Guide to Inherited IRAs

Understanding the inherited IRA: a wealth legacy in transition

When an individual inherits an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) or an employer-sponsored retirement plan after the original owner’s passing, they step into the realm of Inherited IRAs, also known as beneficiary IRAs. This guide is your compass through the complexities and opportunities presented by these inheritances, shedding light on the rules, options, and tax implications that come into play for beneficiaries.

Rules for Inherited IRAs

One of the fundamental distinctions in the world of Inherited IRAs is how they are treated based on the beneficiary’s relationship to the original account holder. Whether you’re a spouse or a non-spouse inheritor, the rules governing these accounts will dictate your choices and responsibilities.

Rules for spousal beneficiaries

Spouses who inherit an IRA enjoy a unique set of advantages. They have the flexibility to roll over the inherited IRA, or a portion of it, into their existing individual retirement accounts. This option allows them to defer required minimum distributions (RMDs) until they reach the age of 73, thanks to the SECURE Act’s changes. Previously, RMDs began at 70½, but this age limit was raised to 72 after the passage of the SECURE Act in December 2019, and it has since been adjusted further with the SECURE 2.0 Act.

Spouses have a 60-day window to roll over a distribution into their own IRAs, as long as it isn’t a required minimum distribution.

Additionally, spousal heirs can create a separate inherited IRA account, as outlined earlier. Their approach to this inherited IRA depends on the age of the deceased account holder.

If the original owner had already initiated RMDs at the time of their passing, the spousal beneficiary must continue to receive the distributions as calculated or establish a new schedule based on their own life expectancy. If the owner hadn’t committed to an RMD schedule or hadn’t reached their required beginning date (RBD)—the age at which they must begin RMDs—the beneficiary of the IRA has a five-year window to withdraw the funds, subject to income taxes.

Rules for non-spousal beneficiaries

Non-spouse beneficiaries face different constraints. They cannot treat the inherited IRA as their own, make additional contributions to it, or merge the funds with their existing IRA. The only option for non-spouse beneficiaries is to establish a new inherited IRA account or opt for a lump-sum payment if they wish to distribute the assets immediately.

It’s crucial to understand that the SECURE Act brought significant changes for non-spousal beneficiaries, mandating that they must deplete the inherited IRA within ten years, with a few exceptions.

Exceptions to the ten-year rule

While most non-spouse beneficiaries must adhere to the ten-year distribution limit, some beneficiaries are exempt from this requirement:

Beneficiaries whose age is within a decade of the deceased account holder.

Disabled or chronically ill individuals.

Minor children who are direct descendants.

For these exempted beneficiaries, there’s no specific timetable for withdrawals; they can be taken annually or as a lump sum. Beneficiaries who fall into these categories, as well as those who already possess inherited IRAs, continue to follow the old distribution rules and schedules.

Your inheritance choices

Understanding your options as an IRA beneficiary is crucial, and these choices depend on your relationship to the decedent:

Spousal beneficiary options:

Take a lump-sum distribution, recognizing that unlike life insurance proceeds, IRA distributions are taxable to the beneficiary.

Roll over inherited funds into your personal, like-kind IRA. For example, if you inherit proceeds from your late spouse’s Traditional IRA, you can roll over those funds to your own Traditional IRA.

Deal with required minimum distributions (RMDs) based on your age, calculated using the IRS Uniform Lifetime Table life expectancy factors. These factors are based on two lives and offer longer distribution periods compared to the IRS Single Life Expectancy Table.

Transfer the inherited assets into an Inherited IRA. RMD timing in this case depends on the decedent’s age at the time of their death and uses the IRS Single Life Expectancy Table.

Disclaim the proceeds, allowing other primary beneficiaries or contingent beneficiaries to inherit the funds.

Non-spousal beneficiary options:

Non-spouse beneficiaries, including natural persons and non-natural entities like charities, businesses, trusts, and estates, have specific options for handling inherited IRAs:

Take a lump-sum distribution, which is taxable to the beneficiary.

Disclaim the proceeds, transferring full rights to remaining beneficiaries or the decedent’s estate.

Transfer the inherited funds into their Inherited IRA, with the timing of RMDs depending on the original owner’s death date and the SECURE Act provisions.

Understanding the rules and options for your specific situation is vital to making informed decisions about your inherited IRA.


Here is a list of the benefits and drawbacks to consider when dealing with inherited IRAs.

  • Opportunity to inherit substantial wealth and secure your financial future.
  • Flexibility in choosing how to handle the inherited IRA, depending on your relationship to the original account holder.
  • Tax advantages, especially with inherited Roth IRAs that offer tax-free withdrawals.
    • Complex rules and tax implications, necessitating careful planning and understanding.
    • Non-spousal beneficiaries must adhere to the ten-year distribution rule, limiting their flexibility.
    • The potential for taxation on withdrawals from inherited traditional IRAs.

Frequently asked questions

Can I make additional contributions to an inherited IRA?

No, additional contributions cannot be made to an inherited IRA. The account is funded with existing assets, and the opportunity to make additional deposits does not apply to inherited IRAs.

What are the taxation rules for inherited IRAs?

The taxation of inherited IRAs varies based on the type of IRA and the beneficiary’s circumstances. Inherited Roth IRAs typically offer tax-free withdrawals, while traditional IRAs may be subject to taxes on withdrawals. Estate tax considerations may also come into play.

Can non-spouse beneficiaries extend the distribution period beyond ten years?

Generally, non-spouse beneficiaries must deplete the inherited IRA within ten years, as mandated by the SECURE Act. However, some exceptions exist for beneficiaries who are within a decade of the deceased account holder’s age, disabled or chronically ill individuals, and minor children (direct descendants).

What are the advantages of converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA to minimize taxes?

Converting a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA can be a tax-efficient strategy, especially after the original owner’s passing. Roth IRAs offer tax-free withdrawals, making them an attractive option for beneficiaries. Consult a financial advisor to assess whether this strategy aligns with your financial goals.

Are there penalties for early withdrawals from inherited IRAs?

Inherited Roth IRAs generally do not incur penalties for early withdrawals, even for beneficiaries under 59½. However, inherited traditional IRAs may be subject to early-withdrawal penalties and taxation, depending on the circumstances. Always consider the tax implications before making withdrawals.

Key takeaways

  • An inherited IRA, or beneficiary IRA, is established when an individual inherits an IRA or employer-sponsored retirement plan after the original owner’s death.
  • Spouses have more flexibility in handling inherited IRAs, including the option to defer RMDs until age 73.
  • Non-spouse beneficiaries must adhere to stricter distribution rules, including depleting the inherited IRA within ten years, with some exceptions.
  • Taxation on inherited IRAs varies based on the type of account and the beneficiary’s situation.
  • Effective tax-avoidance strategies may involve converting traditional IRAs to Roth IRAs and choosing not to take taxable distributions.
View Article Sources
  1. Implications of inherited IRAs – Washington University
  2. Navigating the new regulations for inherited IRAs – University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  3. What is an inherited IRA and how can I use it for charity? – Duke University
  4. Does an executor have to show accounting to beneficiaries? – SuperMoney
  5. IRS form 8606: what is it & when to file? – SuperMoney