Q&A: Withdrawals from an inherited 401(k)

Dear Liz: A relative inherited a 401(k) as a listed beneficiary, and it was simply rolled over into an IRA in her name. Now another family member wants some of the money. The relative keeps trying to explain that if she pulls out any or all of the money, it will be taxed and reduce the amount available if she did want to share it. She is already retired and doesn’t need to use the money. She wants to keep it as part of her joint estate with her spouse, who could possibly use it later to pay off their mortgage. Wouldn’t she be foolish to pull the money out just because another family member thinks he should get some of it?

Answer: Your relative needs to talk to a tax professional.

Required minimum distribution rules prevent people from keeping money in retirement accounts indefinitely, and the rules recently changed regarding inherited retirement accounts. Your relative needs to understand the rules that apply to her, since failing to follow those rules can incur hefty penalties. Exactly how those rules apply depends on when she inherited the money and her relationship to the deceased.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019 eliminated the so-called stretch IRA, which allowed non-spouse beneficiaries to minimize distributions so that inherited retirement accounts could continue to grow tax deferred for decades. Now, non-spouse beneficiaries are typically required to drain the account within 10 years of the original owner’s death. These rules apply to retirement accounts inherited after Dec. 31, 2019. Even if she inherited the money earlier, she would still need to begin distributions at some point. Failing to make these required distributions incurs a tax penalty equal to 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn but wasn’t.

Of course, just because she has to withdraw the money and pay taxes on it does not mean she has to cave to the family member. The withdrawals are hers to spend, invest, share or save as she wishes.

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