Inheriting an IRA is quite a bit different than inheriting any other asset. Unlike cash or investments in a traditional investment account, if you inherit an IRA you’ll need to start withdrawing from the account in order to avoid hefty penalties. In this post we’ll cover what your options are when you inherit an IRA, and how you can best manage it for you & your family.
How IRAs are Passed After Death
Whereas many of your assets will be distributed to heirs according to your will, IRAs are instead distributed by contract. Your custodian (the brokerage firm that holds your account, like Vanguard or TD Ameritrade) lets you designate as many beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries as you like. Once you die, your account bypasses your will, the probate process, and is distributed according to this beneficiary designation.
When account holders don’t designate any beneficiaries things get a little murkier. When the account holder dies, their account is distributed according to their custodian’s default policy. At most custodians this default policy diverts the IRA back to their estate (and goes through probate) but at some it’s diverted to their spouse first. Unfortunately, if the account holder didn’t designate a beneficiary while they were alive, you’re at the mercy of your custodian’s policy.
If the account is indeed diverted back to their estate, it’ll be distributed according to your state’s interpretation of their will. And if they didn’t have one (meaning they died intestate), the state will make its own decision on who should inherit the asset.
The moral of the story? Take advantage of the opportunity to bypass probate, and designate your beneficiaries formally while you’re still alive.