You can plan to have your heirs inherit your IRA assets.


Can an IRA keep growing for a century or more? In theory, it can. Some people are planning to “stretch” their Individual Retirement Accounts over generations, so that their heirs can receive IRA assets accumulated after decades of tax-deferred or tax-free growth. A stretch IRA can potentially create a legacy of wealth to benefit your heirs, and it could also help to reduce your estate taxes.

Usually, this is a choice of the high net worth investor. Typically, an individual, couple or family has amassed sizable retirement savings – so sizable that they don’t need to withdraw the bulk of their IRA assets during their lifetimes.


How does this work? Simply put, a stretch IRA is a Roth or traditional IRA with assets that pass from the original account owner to a younger beneficiary when the original account owner dies. The beneficiary can be a spouse or a non-spousal heir (or in some cases, not a person at all but a “see-through” trust.)1

If the beneficiary is a person, this younger beneficiary will have a longer life expectancy than the initial IRA owner, and therefore may elect to “stretch” the IRA by receiving smaller required minimum distributions (RMDs) each year of his or her life span. This will leave money in the IRA and permit ongoing tax-deferred growth – or tax-free growth, in the case of a Roth IRA.

In fact, since you don’t have to take RMDs from a Roth IRA at age 70½, you could opt to let your Roth IRA grow untapped for a lifetime. At your death, your beneficiaries could then stretch payouts over their life expectancies without having to pay tax on withdrawals.2


What options do the beneficiaries have? Well, the rules governing inherited IRAs are quite complex. The explanation below is simply a summary, and should not be taken as any kind of advice or guide. 

If you have named your spouse as the beneficiary of your IRA, your spouse can roll over the inherited IRA assets into his or her own IRA after your death (presuming they don’t need the money).

If you die before age 70½, your spouse can treat the inherited IRA as his or her own and make contributions and withdrawals. Or, instead of treating the IRA as his or her own, your spouse can elect to begin receiving distributions on either December 31st of the calendar year following your death, or the date that you would have been age 70½, whichever date is later.

If your beneficiary is non-spousal, he or she cannot treat the IRA as his or her own, and cannot make contributions to it or rollovers into or out of it.3 A non-spousal beneficiary can either take the lump sum and pay taxes on it, or transfer the IRA assets to an IRA distribution account.

If your non-spousal beneficiary elects to set up a distribution account and you have passed away before age 70½, he or she must follow either the one-year rule or the five-year rule.

Under the one-year rule, annual distributions are based on the life expectancy of the designated beneficiary and must start by December 31st of the year following the original IRA owner’s death. In this way, your beneficiary can stretch out the distributions over his or her life expectancy, which can allow more of the inherited IRA assets to remain in the IRA and enjoy tax-deferred or tax-free growth.

Under the five-year rule, there are no minimum annual distribution requirements, but the beneficiary must withdraw their full interest by the end of the fifth year following the owner’s death.

The beneficiary can be determined even after the original IRA owner dies – if there is somehow no named beneficiary, you have until the end of the year following the death of the primary IRA owner to establish one.4 But it is vital to establish a beneficiary during your lifetime: if you don’t, your IRA assets could end up in your estate, and that will leave your heirs with two choices. If you pass away after age 70½, the RMDs from the IRA are calculated according to what would have been your remaining life expectancy. If you pass away before age 70½, the five-year rule applies: your heirs have to cash out the entire IRA by the end of the fifth year following the year of your death.2


Things to think about. The decision to stretch your IRA cannot be made casually. A beneficiary must be selected with great care, and there is always the possibility that you may end up withdrawing all of your IRA assets during your lifetime. A stretch IRA strategy assumes that your beneficiary won’t deplete the IRA assets, and it also assumes a constant rate of return for the account over the years. It’s also worth remembering that stretch IRA planning is based on today’s tax laws, not the tax laws of tomorrow.


If you are interested in stretching your IRA, you must find a truly qualified advisor to help you. While many advisors know something of the rules and regulations governing stretch IRAs, look for an advisor with an advanced education in IRA planning.







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