Dear Liz: I inherited my brother’s Roth IRA about three years ago. I find it hard to get any information about non-spousal inherited Roths. Can you tell me more about this type of Roth IRA?
Answer: It may be unfortunate that you didn’t ask sooner.
When a spouse inherits a Roth IRA, he can roll it into his own Roth IRA, and it’s as if he or she was the owner of the inherited funds all along. There’s no minimum distribution requirement, so the money can continue to grow.
If you’re not a spouse, you have the option of transferring it into an account titled as an inherited Roth IRA. You also have the option of taking distributions over your lifetime — which means keeping the bulk of the money growing for you tax-free — but to do that you must begin taking required minimum distributions by Dec. 31 of the year after the year in which the owner died.
If you didn’t start these required distributions on time, you have to withdraw all the assets in the account by Dec. 31 of the fifth year after the year your brother died, said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. You won’t have to pay taxes on this withdrawal, but it would have been better to let the money continue to grow tax-free in the account.
Dear Liz: I am 64. My grown children, ages 23 and 25, are the beneficiaries of my retirement accounts. I have a Roth IRA, a SIMPLE IRA and a Rollover IRA. When I die, what will be the tax consequences for them? Will they have to pay any tax upon inheriting the accounts, and will they have to pay any tax when they withdraw the money over time?
Answer: If your estate is worth less than $5 million, it’s unlikely it will incur federal estate taxes. Some states have lower exemption limits and a few have inheritance taxes. New Jersey and Delaware have both. An online search for “state estate and inheritance taxes” should turn up the situation for your state.
Your children won’t have to pay income taxes on distributions from your Roth, but unlike you or a spouse they are required to take distributions once they inherit the account. They can either do so within five years of your death or they can opt to spread the distributions over their lifetimes (which is usually the better option).
Minimum distributions also will be required from your IRAs. Your heirs will have to pay income taxes on those distributions.
Advise your children to consult a tax pro after you die, since these accounts need to be properly handled and titled to get the most benefit.
Dear Liz: I am a CPA and fairly knowledgeable about investing, but I have a question about my IRAs. I am 58 and my husband is in his mid-80s. We both are retired with federal pensions and no debt other than a mortgage. My plan is to start taking money annually from my traditional IRA in two or three years. I want to reduce the required minimum distribution I will need to start taking at age 701/2 and lessen the tax impact at that time. Should I put these annual withdrawals in my regular investment account or should I put them in the Roth IRA? My goal is to lessen the tax impact on my only child when he ultimately inherits this money. Does my plan make sense?
Answer: Your letter is proof that our tax code is too complex if it can stymie even a CPA. Still, it’s hard to imagine any scenario where you’d be better off accelerating withdrawals from an IRA and putting them in a taxable account.
A required minimum distribution “is merely a requirement to take the money out anyway,” said Certified Financial Planner Michael Kitces, an expert in taxation. “All you’re doing by taking money out early to ‘avoid’ an RMD [required minimum distribution] is voluntarily inflicting an even more severe and earlier RMD on yourself.”
In other words, you’d be giving up future tax-advantaged growth of your money for no good reason.
What might make sense, in some circumstances, is moving the money to a Roth. You can’t make contributions to a Roth if you’re not working, because Roths require contributions be made from “earned income.” What you can do is convert your traditional IRA to a Roth, either all at once or over time. You have to pay taxes on amounts you convert, but then the money can grow tax-free inside the Roth and doesn’t have to be withdrawn again during your lifetime, since Roths don’t have required minimum distributions. Whether you should convert depends on a number of factors, including your current and future tax rates and those of your child.
“In other words, if your tax rate is 25% and your child’s is 15%, just let them inherit the [traditional IRA] account and pay the lower tax burden,” said Kitces, who has blogged about the Roth vs. traditional IRA decision at http://www.kitces.com. “In reverse, though, if the parents’ tax rate is lower … then yes, it’s absolutely better to convert at the parents’ rates than the child’s. In either scenario, the fundamental goal remains the same — get the money out when the tax rate is lowest.”
If you do decide to convert, remember that the conversion itself could put you in a higher tax bracket.
“It will be important not to convert so much that it drives up the tax rate to the point where it defeats the value in the first place,” Kitces said. “Which means the optimal strategy, if it’s to convert anything at all, will be to do partial Roth conversions to fill lower tax brackets but avoid being pushed into the upper ones.”
Dear Liz: I found your recent discussion of Roth IRAs informative. But I’ve been told that one of the main advantages of a Roth vs. a traditional IRA is that a Roth is a safer investment when it comes to creditors trying to attack it. How can that be? Is one type of IRA safer than another?
Answer: The short answer is no.
Employer-sponsored retirement plans, including 401(k)s and 403(b)s, typically have unlimited protection from creditors in Bankruptcy Court. The exceptions: The IRS and former spouses can make claims on such plans.
Individual retirement accounts, including IRAs and Roth IRAs, lack the protection afforded by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. But the bankruptcy reform law that went into effect in 2005 protects IRAs of all kinds up to a certain limit (which in April rose to $1,245,475).
Short of bankruptcy, the amount of your IRAs or Roth IRAs that creditors can access depends on state law.
If there’s any chance you’ll be filing for bankruptcy or the target of a creditor lawsuit, you should talk to an experienced bankruptcy attorney about your options.
Dear Liz: None of the Web-based tools I’ve seen really get at the heart of the problem of how much I really need in retirement. For example, if I am diligent and save 20% of my income (I earn over $150,000), why would I need to replace 95% or even 80% of my income to maintain my standard of living in retirement? If I subtract the 20% going to savings, another 10% for the costs of working (clothes, lunches, gas) and reduce my income tax 5%, shouldn’t I be living the same lifestyle at 65% of my current income? Now, if I have a pension that will replace 10% of my pay, and if Social Security benefits for my spouse and me replace 30%, don’t my investments have to produce only the remaining 25%? Or am I missing something?
Answer: The further you are from retirement, the harder it can be to predict how much you’ll need when you get there.
Financial planners often use an income replacement rate of 70% to 80% as a starting point. It’s just that, though. Planners will tell you some of their clients’ spending actually increases in the early years of retirement as they travel and indulge in other expensive hobbies. Those who are frugal or used to living well below their means are often able to retire comfortably with a much lower income replacement rate.
A big wild card is the cost of medical and nursing care in your later years. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Expenditure Survey shows average overall spending tends to drop after retirement and continues to decline as people age. Serious illness or a nursing home bill can cause spending to surge late in life, however, leading to a U-shaped spending pattern for many.
Taxes also are hard to predict. While most people drop into a lower tax bracket once they stop working, those with substantial retirement incomes and investments may not. Tax rates themselves could rise in the future, even if your income doesn’t.
Social Security benefits may change, as well. Although it’s highly unlikely the program will disappear, some proposals for changing Social Security reduce checks for higher earners.
Once you’re within a decade or so of retirement, you should have a better handle on what you’ll spend once you quit work. Before that point, err on the side of caution. Assuming a higher income replacement rate gives you wiggle room once you’ve retired — or the option to retire earlier if it turns out you need less.
Dear Liz: My partner passed away a little more than a year ago. I inherited his 401(k) and life insurance. I opened an IRA in which to place the amount of the 401(k), but the company told me that after a year (which is now), I have to withdraw the money over five years. Is that really required? I’d like to be able to have it on hand in case of an emergency but at the same time save it for our 2-year-old son’s college education.
Answer: Since you weren’t married, you don’t have the option of treating this inherited account as your own. That would have allowed you to delay withdrawals until after you turned 70 1/2 , if you wanted.
The fact that this is a non-spouse inherited IRA, however, doesn’t necessarily mean you’re bound by the five-year rule. That rule requires the IRA be distributed by Dec. 31 of the fifth year following the year of the original retirement account owner’s death. You may also have the option of beginning distributions based on your life expectancy. That would allow the bulk of the money to remain in the IRA, continuing to earn tax-deferred returns, and is usually a better choice.
Whether you have this second option depends on the terms of the IRA and the original 401(k) plan.
“It is important to check the IRA terms rather than rely on oral statements since the five-year option may be pushed when it is not required,” said Mark Luscombe, principal analyst for CCH Tax & Accounting North America. “It is also important to make a determination on the availability on the life-expectancy rule in the year after death since distributions must start under the life-expectancy rule in that year. Waiting too long could force one into the five-year rule by default.”