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Get Familiar With Inherited IRA Rules

Retirement Planning
Inherited IRA Rules DefinitionInheritance Tax Definition

Key Takeaways

  • Spouses have flexible options with an Inherited IRA, while non-spouses must withdraw funds within ten years.
  • Spouse beneficiaries can delay RMDs; non-spouses must empty accounts within ten years.
  • Inherited IRA withdrawal rules vary by beneficiary/deceased status, with tax implications except for Roth IRAs, with no early withdrawal penalties.
  • Beneficiaries can invest in Inherited IRA funds in assets for tax-advantaged growth aligned with goals and risk tolerance.
  • Beneficiaries should seek professional advice to maximize inherited funds while navigating complex tax implications and legal requirements around distributions.

What Is an Inherited IRA?

An inherited IRA, also known as a beneficiary IRA, is a type of retirement account you might receive if someone like a parent, spouse, or another family member passes away and names you as the beneficiary of their IRA (Individual Retirement Account).1 This particular type of IRA allows you to hold onto the money that the original owner saved, keeping it invested and potentially growing over time.

How Does It Work?

Here’s a breakdown of how an Inherited IRA works:

  • Setting Up the Account: To transfer funds from an inherited IRA, ensure that you set up an Inherited IRA correctly to avoid taxes or penalties.
  • Different Rules for Spouses and Non-Spouses: Spouses of the deceased have more options for inheriting an IRA, including transferring the funds to their own IRA. Non-spouses, such as children, siblings, or friends, must use an Inherited IRA and cannot combine it with their retirement accounts.
  • Withdrawal Rules: An inherited IRA requires withdrawals known as Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs), which must be taken within a certain time frame set by the IRS. The specific rules vary depending on the original owner's RMD status, your relationship with them, and the year they passed away.
  • Tax Implications: Withdrawals from an Inherited IRA are usually taxable as income, but the tax burden may be less than earning regular income due to the account's tax advantages.
  • Investment Choices: An Inherited IRA allows investors to invest in various assets, such as stocks, bonds, and mutual funds, helping the account grow over time.

Understanding these rules can help you manage an Inherited IRA effectively, ensuring you comply with legal requirements while maximizing the inherited funds. It’s always a good idea to consult with a financial advisor to navigate these options and decide on the best strategy for your situation.

What Are the Inherited IRA Rules?

Inheriting an IRA comes with specific rules that govern the account's management, such as taxes owed, how to access the money, and the duration the account can stay open. The rules are as follows: 

Rule 1: Types of Beneficiaries

  • Spouse: As a spouse of the deceased, you can transfer the assets to your own IRA or open an Inherited IRA account. Transferring to your own IRA is often beneficial as it allows the assets to grow tax-deferred, and the required minimum distributions are based on age.
  • Non-Spouse: Non-spouses, like children, other relatives, or friends, must transfer the inherited assets into an Inherited IRA account. They cannot combine these with their IRAs.

Rule 2: Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

  • Spouse Beneficiaries: Spousal beneficiaries can delay RMDs until the deceased has turned 72.
  • Non-Spouse Beneficiaries: With the SECURE Act 2019, non-spousal beneficiaries must withdraw all assets from an Inherited IRA within ten years of the account owner's death. No minimum distributions are required within those years, but the account must be emptied by the end of the 10th anniversary of the account owner's death.

Rule 3: Tax Implications

Withdrawals from Inherited IRAs are subject to ordinary income tax. However, there are no penalties for early withdrawal, regardless of the beneficiary’s age.

If the original IRA was a Roth IRA, withdrawals are typically tax-free, provided the Roth IRA had been opened for at least five years before the owner's death.

Rule 4: Exceptions to the 10-Year Rule

"Eligible designated beneficiaries" such as minors, disabled or chronically ill individuals, and beneficiaries not more than ten years younger than the IRA owner are exempt from the 10-year rule.

The 10-Year Rule is a general rule for non-spousal beneficiaries but may not apply to certain individuals who meet specific criteria.

Rule 5: Year-of-Death RMD

Suppose the original IRA owner was already taking RMDs but did not take their RMD in the year they died. The beneficiary must take this distribution and pay the corresponding taxes.

Managing an Inherited IRA

Managing an Inherited IRA requires careful planning, especially regarding tax implications and withdrawal strategies. If you inherit such an account:

  • Understand your timeline for withdrawals, whether over your lifetime or within ten years.
  • Consult a financial advisor to discuss the best strategies for minimizing taxes and maximizing the growth potential of the inherited funds.
  • Monitor any changes in legislation that might affect Inherited IRAs to ensure compliance and optimize financial planning.

Beneficiaries can effectively manage Inherited IRAs to support their financial goals by adhering to these rules and seeking professional advice.

Options for Inherited IRAs

If you've recently inherited an IRA (Individual Retirement Account), you may wonder about your options and the best way to manage this asset. Here’s a straightforward guide to help you navigate your choices.

Options for Spouses

If you’re the spouse of the deceased, you have the most flexible options:

  1. Transfer the Funds to Your Own IRA: This choice allows you to treat the inherited IRA as your own. You can continue making contributions and don’t have to start withdrawals until you reach the age of 72.

  2. Open an Inherited IRA Account: You can transfer the funds into an inherited IRA. This might be a good choice if you need to access the money before you turn 59½, as it avoids the early withdrawal penalty.

Options for Non-Spouse Beneficiaries

Non-spouse beneficiaries (like children, siblings, or friends) have different rules:

  1. Withdraw All Funds Within 10-Year Window: Non-spouse beneficiaries must withdraw inherited IRA funds within ten years of the original owner's death. No minimum distributions are required, but the account must be emptied by the end of the ten years.

  2. Lifetime Distributions: Beneficiaries can still stretch distributions over their lifetimes if they are eligible designated beneficiaries, including minor children of the original account owner, disabled individuals, and individuals not more than ten years younger than the account owner.

Alternatives to Cashing Out an Inherited IRA

Inheriting an IRA and cashing it out can lead to significant tax implications. Consider alternative options to help manage tax burdens and preserve the account’s growth potential. Here’s a guide to some options you might consider.

  1. Take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs): Depending on your relationship to the deceased and the IRA type, you may be able to stretch required minimum distributions (RMDs) over your lifetime. This can help manage tax liability by only paying taxes on the annual withdrawal amounts.
  2. Disclaim the Inheritance: If an inherited IRA would cause financial issues, you can disclaim (refuse) it within nine months of the account holder's death. This allows the IRA to pass to the next beneficiary before taking possession.
  3. Five-Year Rule: If the original owner hadn't started RMDs, you may have the option to use the 5-year rule, which allows the complete withdrawal of the inherited IRA assets within 5 five years of the owner's death. This can aid specific financial planning, though taxes still apply.
  4. Donate to Charity: Consider using IRA funds to make a qualified charitable distribution to reduce taxable income. This can be an effective way to meet philanthropic goals while managing your tax situation.
  5. Consider a Roth Conversion: If the inherited IRA is traditional, converting it to a Roth IRA could be beneficial, depending on your current and expected future tax rates. This strategy involves paying taxes on the converted amount now, but future withdrawals would be tax-free if they meet Roth guidelines.
  6. Explore Stretch IRA Options: Recent law changes limited non-spouse beneficiaries' "stretch" option to take lifetime distributions. However, eligible designated beneficiaries (e.g., minors, disabled, <10 years younger than the owner) may still use this strategy to minimize taxable income yearly and extend tax-deferred growth.
  7. Investigate Trust Options: In some cases, the IRA might be held in a trust, which could provide different distribution options based on the terms of the trust. This can be a complex area, so consulting with a financial advisor or attorney specializing in estate planning might be wise.

When dealing with an inherited IRA, consider your financial situation, future needs, and taxes. Seek advice from a financial advisor. Planning is essential to make the most of the asset, whether you draw the account gradually or use the funds more quickly.

Tax Considerations & Strategies

Navigating the tax implications wisely is crucial when managing an inherited IRA (Individual Retirement Account). This ensures that you maximize the benefits while adhering to the IRS guidelines. Here are some straightforward tips to help you understand the tax considerations and strategies associated with inherited IRAs.

1. Identify the Type of IRA

The tax treatment of an inherited IRA depends significantly on whether it's a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA:

  • Traditional IRA: Distributions are typically taxed as ordinary income. This means the money you withdraw is added to your annual income and taxed accordingly.
  • Roth IRA: Distributions are generally tax-free, as the original account holder already paid taxes on the contributions. However, ensuring that the five-year holding period has been met before taking distributions is essential.

2. Understand the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

As an inheritor, you are required to take minimum distributions from the IRA. The rules vary based on your relationship to the original owner and the owner's age at the time of death:

  • Spouses: Spouses have more flexibility. They can transfer the assets to their own IRA or continue the IRA as an inherited account. If they opt for the latter, RMDs will start at the age the deceased would have turned 72.
  • Non-spouses: Non-spouse beneficiaries must start RMDs by Dec 31 after the owner's death. The SECURE Act requires most to deplete the inherited IRA within ten years of the owner's death, with no annual withdrawals needed but the whole balance depleted by year 10.

3. Consider the Impact on Your Tax Bracket

Withdrawing more significant amounts from an inherited Traditional IRA could bump you into a higher tax bracket. This means you could end up paying more in taxes not only on the distribution itself but also on your other income. Strategic planning is essential to minimize this impact, possibly by spreading the distributions evenly over the ten years, especially if you expect significant fluctuations in your income.

4. Think About Withholding Taxes

You can request that federal (and possibly state) taxes be withheld from your distribution. This can be a practical way to handle potential tax liabilities without paying a lump sum during tax season. However, please ensure the amount withheld matches your expected tax obligation to avoid underpayment penalties.

5. Consult a Tax Professional

Every individual’s situation is unique, especially when considering state-specific rules and potential estate taxes. Consulting with a tax professional or financial advisor can provide tailored advice based on your specific circumstances and help you navigate the complexities of inherited IRA taxation efficiently.

Handling an inherited IRA wisely involves understanding the nuances of tax rules and planning strategies to optimize your financial benefits. By staying informed and considering proactive tax planning, you can effectively manage an inherited IRA and its implications on your financial landscape.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Inheriting an IRA can be financially rewarding, but it comes with its rules. A strategic plan to maximize its benefits and avoid pitfalls can help you avoid these common mistakes:

  • Not Understanding Distribution Requirements: A common mistake is misunderstanding inherited IRA's required minimum distribution (RMD) rules, which vary by beneficiary relation to deceased. Missing RMDs can incur 50% penalties on undrawn amounts.
  • Ignoring Tax Implications: Inherited IRAs are subject to tax rules that affect payouts. Traditional IRAs are taxed as ordinary income, while Roth IRAs may offer tax-free withdrawals under certain conditions. Ignoring these rules can lead to unexpected financial stress.
  • Not Considering All Distribution Options: Beneficiaries often withdraw inherited IRAs too quickly, missing tax-saving strategies that stretch distributions over their lifetimes for continued investment growth.
  • Overlooking Spousal Options: Spousal beneficiaries can roll over an inherited IRA into their own, delaying RMDs until age 72. This strategic move can aid tax planning and investment growth but is frequently overlooked.
  • Failing to Update or Consider Estate Plans: Inheriting an IRA impacts your finances, requiring a review of your estate plan. Many fail to integrate inherited assets into their strategy, leading to inefficiencies.
  • Not Seeking Professional Advice: Inherited IRA rules are complex and situation-specific. Consulting a financial advisor or tax pro for tailored guidance is wise, as navigating alone risks costly mistakes.

By being aware of these common pitfalls, you can more effectively manage an inherited IRA and use it as a beneficial component of your overall financial strategy. Always take the time to understand the rules, evaluate your options, and seek professional advice to make the most informed decisions.


Navigating the rules of an Inherited IRA can be challenging, but understanding your options empowers you to make the best decisions for your financial future. Consult with a financial advisor who specializes in retirement planning. Take control of your inheritance today to secure your financial future!

Frequently Asked Questions

When should you cash out an inherited IRA?

Deciding when to cash out an inherited IRA depends on several factors, including financial situation and tax implications. Generally, it's wise to consult with a financial advisor to understand the specific rules, such as the requirement for most non-spouse beneficiaries to withdraw all funds within ten years. This approach helps manage potential tax burdens and aligns the withdrawal strategy with your long-term financial goals.

What is the difference between an inherited IRA and a beneficiary IRA?

An inherited IRA and a beneficiary IRA are terms often used interchangeably to describe the same thing: an IRA passed on to someone other than the original account holder's spouse after they pass away. However, "beneficiary IRA" highlights explicitly that the account is transferred to a designated beneficiary.

Regardless of the term used, this type of IRA allows the new owner to continue benefiting from the account's tax-advantaged status, although there are specific rules on how and when the funds must be withdrawn.

Can I convert an inherited IRA to a Roth?

Yes, you can convert an inherited IRA to a Roth IRA, but there are specific rules you need to follow. If you are a non-spouse sole beneficiary, you can't directly convert the inherited IRA into your own Roth IRA; instead, you'll need to open an Inherited Roth IRA to make the transfer.

It's essential to consult with a financial advisor to understand the potential tax implications and ensure you comply with the minimum distribution rules.


  1. Publication 590-B (2023), Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs). https://www.irs.gov/publications/p590b#en_US_2018_publink1000230538.

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