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Avoid These 6 Mistakes In Stretch IRA Planning

As talk of the possibility of tax reform continues in Washington, there's an increased focus on the rules for "stretch IRAs." This retirement planning technique, which enables you to preserve assets in an inherited IRA for an extended period, could be targeted in a larger tax reform package. For the time being, however, stretch IRA planning remains a viable option for many people.

But to use a stretch IRA successfully, you'll need to follow a number of important rules and avoid common mistakes made by those who inherit IRA assets.

If you own an IRA, you must take required minimum distributions (RMDs) annually beginning in the year after you reach age 70½. Otherwise, you'll be hit with a stiff IRS penalty. Those distributions are taxed at your rate for ordinary income—which could be as high as 39.6%—and are based on a calculation that considers the account balance at the end of the previous year and your life expectancy (or your joint life expectancies with your spouse).

However, beneficiaries who inherit your IRA can arrange for RMDs based on their own life expectancies, unless they choose to empty the account more quickly. Stretching out the IRA over the longer time can help preserve wealth for younger generations.

With those basics in mind, consider these six common mistakes in stretch IRA planning:

Mistake #1: Your account is titled improperly. When someone dies and IRA assets are inherited, it's crucial to ensure that the account name is titled correctly. For example, if someone other than your spouse inherits your IRA, your name should remain on the inherited IRA account title and it must be indicated that it is an inherited IRA by using the words "beneficiary" or "beneficiary IRA" or "inherited IRA."

Mistake #2: You fail to take RMDs. If the IRA account holder already was taking RMDs at the time of death, inheritors will need to make sure that the RMD is withdrawn for the year in which the account holder died. Failing to meet this requirement triggers a penalty equal to 50% of the amount that should have been withdrawn.

Mistake #3: You, as the primary beneficiary, fail to utilize a disclaimer when appropriate. A qualified disclaimer is a legal document that effectively says you choose not to receive the IRA assets, which then will pass to the contingent beneficiaries listed on the IRA paperwork. This strategy may be preferable if you don't need the money and you intend to pass along the inherited assets to younger beneficiaries eventually. Doing it now means RMDs will be based on the new owners' longer life expectancies.

Mistake #4: You fail to analyze contingent beneficiaries when using a disclaimer. It's important to consider all relevant financial and tax factors before agreeing to pass up inherited IRA assets through a disclaimer. This is not a casual decision. Consider whether the contingent beneficiaries in fact will be able to stretch out the IRA longer under their life expectancies and look at their tax consequences. Younger contingent beneficiaries may be in a lower tax bracket than you are, and if they pay the taxes that could reduce the overall tax bite.

Mistake #5: You take a lump-sum distribution. Some people think they're required to take a lump-sum distribution from an inherited IRA to empty the account immediately. That's simply not true. If you need the money, go ahead and take it. But if you don't have a pressing need, going the stretch IRA route could enable you to preserve wealth longer and generally will reduce tax liability.

A large lump-sum distribution could rocket you into a higher tax bracket and force you to lose more of the inheritance in taxes.

Mistake #6: You fail to analyze spousal rollovers. Current tax law offers greater flexibility to spouses who inherit an IRA. They can roll over inherited assets into their own IRA accounts and set up payouts calculated on their own life expectancies. However, a rollover isn't always the optimal approach for spouses. For instance, if a surviving spouse is under age 59½, payouts from the IRA will trigger the 10% penalty tax for early withdrawals, on top of the regular income tax owed.