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IRA Beneficiary Designation Planning

One of the most important decisions about an IRA is naming the beneficiary or beneficiaries. There are many candidates for the biggest mistake made by IRA owners, and a leading contender is the failure to name a beneficiary or naming the wrong beneficiary.

If no beneficiary is named, the estate is the beneficiary. When an estate or another non-individual is a primary beneficiary, the entire IRA must be distributed within five years after the original owner’s passing. The estate, as the beneficiary, will owe income taxes on the distributions, in addition to any estate taxes due on the value of the IRA. An IRA owner should never fail to designate at least one qualified individual as primary beneficiary and should never name the estate or other non-individual as a primary or contingent beneficiary. The only exceptions are when there is no interest in allowing heirs to use the tax deferral of the IRA and for certain trust that are allowed to defer distributions.

Since new regulations were issued in 2001 and 2002, the choice of beneficiary is not fixed and does not affect required minimum distributions. The major consideration in naming the beneficiary is: Who should receive the IRA in light of the goals, tax issues, and any other factors that are important to the owner?

After deciding on the primary beneficiary or beneficiaries, the owner also should name contingent beneficiaries. These are people who inherit if the primary beneficiaries are not available or disclaim the inheritance. Naming contingent beneficiaries can be part of a good strategy. The estate executor names the Designated Beneficiary of an IRA by the end of September of the year after the owner passed away. The DB’s age determines the required minimum distributions for the IRA. The DB must be on the list of primary or contingent beneficiaries.

Naming contingent beneficiaries allows the executor and heirs to adjust the estate plan if circumstances have changed. Primary beneficiaries who believe it is best for the family that someone else inherit the IRA can disclaim their rights. Disclaimers can continue until the “right person” is available to be named DB. That cannot happen unless contingent beneficiaries are named.

Customized Beneficiary Forms

When naming beneficiaries, it often can be best not to use the Beneficiary Designation forms provided by IRA custodians. A number of estate planners draft their own forms and have them reviewed and approved by the custodians.

One value to a custom beneficiary form is it allows the owner to name more than one primary beneficiary and leave them unequal shares, something that often is difficult or not possible with standard forms. A custom form ensures that the form lists all the beneficiaries the owner wants named. Another benefit to a custom form is, if there are disclaimers or premature deaths of beneficiaries, contingent beneficiaries will succeed primary beneficiaries in the desired order and not in an order dictated by the IRA custodian.

While a standard form might work for many people, those with multiple beneficiaries or less-than-standard situations should consider having their estate planners draft custom forms and file them with the IRA custodian.

The IRA owner also should consider who would receive the share of a beneficiary who dies prematurely — either before inheriting a share of the IRA or after distributions to heirs begin. Should the share go to the children of the beneficiary, or should it be shared by the other primary beneficiaries? Or should it go to a different contingent beneficiary?

The choice is up to the IRA owner, but it has to be stated in the designation form. Otherwise, most IRA custodians have a default position they implement absent instructions from the IRA owner. State law also might establish a default position. The IRA owner should consider the issue and make the choice clear in the designation form.

Another issue: Suppose a beneficiary or contingent beneficiary is young or cannot be trusted to handle the IRA properly. Then, it might be appropriate to name a trust as the beneficiary of the IRA. Naming a trust also is appropriate when the intended beneficiary has special needs.

A trust that is an IRA beneficiary must have precise terms in order to take advantage of the IRA’s tax deferral. With the wrong trust terms, the IRA balance must be distributed and taxed on an accelerated schedule. The help of an experienced estate planner is needed to set up the trust properly.

Splitting IRAs

When there are multiple objects of affection, one option is to name them as joint primary beneficiaries. An alternative is for the IRA owner to split the IRA into separate IRAs, naming a separate beneficiary and a group of contingent beneficiaries for each. IRS regulations allow beneficiaries who jointly inherit an IRA to split it. Yet, not all beneficiaries know about this right or are able to agree to execute it. The owner might find it wise to split the IRA now rather than leaving that to the estate administration process.

I frequently emphasize that an estate owner who plans to leave something to charity should consider using the IRA to do so. Unlike other beneficiaries, the charity will fully benefit from the IRA. Charities are tax-exempt. A charity can withdraw the entire IRA balance and not owe income taxes on it. In addition, naming a charity as beneficiary avoids the estate tax. The IRA is included in the estate, but there is an offsetting charitable contribution deduction for the amount left to the charity.

Because non-charitable heirs benefit more by receiving non-IRA assets, leaving the IRA to a charity can be a good deal for all involved. When the estate owner plans to leave part of the estate to charity and there are enough non-IRA assets for other beneficiaries, the owner should consider leaving all or part of the IRA to charity while leaving the other assets to non-charitable beneficiaries.

When considering IRA beneficiaries as part of an estate plan, there are a couple of other strategies I frequently recommend that you should consider as alternatives.

One strategy is to avoid all this by emptying your IRA early. Distribute all or most of the IRA, pay the taxes, and invest the after-tax amount. That gives you more flexibility over how to give away the balance and probably gives the heirs a larger after-tax amount in the long term. This can be appropriate for someone with a large IRA and other income or assets to maintain the standard of living. It also is best if you expect the after-tax account to have 10 years or more to growth and compound before money is withdrawn.

Another strategy is to convert the traditional IRA into a Roth IRA. This does not avoid the choice of beneficiary, but it makes the distributions tax free. Keep in mind it costs money to convert to a Roth IRA.