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What Can I Do with an Inherited 401(k)?

Inherited 401(k) Accounts
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An inherited 401(k) is simply a 401(k) that’s been passed on to a beneficiary on the death of the account owner. If the original 401(k) owner is married, the inheritor is usually their spouse. The exception to the rule is if their spouse signs a waiver allowing them to name someone else as their plan beneficiary.

Inheriting a 401(k) at the death of the account owner isn’t always as simple as inheriting a home or a piece of jewelry. The IRS has rules that 401(k) beneficiaries must follow that say when and how much tax they’ll pay to inherit someone else’s retirement plan. If you’re currently the beneficiary of a 401(k) or you’ve recently inherited one, here are some important things you need to know.

Smart Assets’s recent article entitled “A Guide to Inheriting a 401(k)” explains that if a spouse of the account owner waives their right to inherit a 401(k) or the account owner is unmarried, they can leave their account to whomever they want at their death.

An inherited 401(k) is taxed is based on three key factors: (i) your relationship to the account owner; (ii) your age when you inherit the 401(k); and (iii) the account owner’s age when they die.

There’s also several ways to take a distribution from a 401(k) when you’ve inherited it: you can do a lump sum, periodic payments, or distributions stretched out over your life expectancy.

If you inherit a 401(k) from your spouse, what you decide to do with it and the subsequent tax impacts may be based primarily upon your age. If you’re under age 59½, you have a choice of three things:

  1. Keep the money in the plan and take distributions. You can take withdrawals from the account without the 10% early withdrawal penalty. You’d still pay regular income tax on any distributions you take. If your spouse was age 70½ or older when they passed away, you would have to take required minimum distributions from this account. There’d be no early withdrawal penalty. However, you’d pay income tax on the withdrawals. If the spouse was younger than 70½ when they died, you could wait to take RMDs until you turn 70½.
  2. Move the money to an inherited IRA. This is an IRA that’s designed to hold rollover funds from an inherited retirement plan, including 401(k)s. You can make withdrawals without any early withdrawal penalty. With this type of account, you’d need to take RMDs. However, the amount would be based on your own life expectancy, not the amount your spouse would have been required to take.
  3. Move the money to your own IRA. If you already have an IRA, you could roll an inherited 401(k) into it with no tax penalty. However, if you’re under age 59½ when you execute the rollover, the withdrawal will be treated like a regular distribution, so you’ll pay income tax on the full amount, along with the 10% early withdrawal penalty. If you’re over age 59½, you won’t pay an early withdrawal penalty with any of these options. If your spouse was taking RMDs from their 401(k) when they died, you’d have the option to continue taking them or delay taking them until you turn 70½. If you’re already 70½ or older, you’d need to take RMDs, regardless of whether you leave the money in the 401(k), transfer it to an inherited IRA or roll it over to your existing IRA.

If you inherit a 401(k) from someone other than your spouse, your options are linked to how old the account owner was when you inherited the plan and the plan’s distribution rules. If the account owner hadn’t yet turned 70½, the plan may let you spread distributions out over your lifetime or spread them out over a five-year period. If you take the five-year option, you may have to fully withdraw all of the account assets by the end of the fifth year following the account owner’s death. In either case, you’d pay income tax on the withdrawals.

You could also roll the account over to an inherited IRA, if the plan permits this. Here, the RMDs would be based on your life expectancy, assuming the account owner hadn’t started taking them yet. If they had started with their RMDs, you’re required to continue taking those distributions. However, you could base the distribution amount on your life expectancy, rather than that of the account owner.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to help you determine the route that makes the most sense to reduce taxes, while planning ahead for the future.

Reference: Smart Asset (October 22, 2019) “A Guide to Inheriting a 401(k)”

Suggested Key Terms: Asset Protection, Tax Planning, Financial Planning, Inherited IRA, Roth Conversion, Required Minimum Distribution (RMD)

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