OCTOBER 18, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 32
Three weeks ago we wrote about how to leave an IRA (or other qualified retirement plan) to a special needs trust for your child who has a disability. Two weeks ago we wrote about whether you should (and how you would) name any trust as beneficiary of an IRA. At the risk of getting too technical for most readers, this week we are going to tread lightly where few have gone before: let us explain what happens after you have named a trust as beneficiary of your IRA, and what choices the trustee of your trust might face.
First we have to clarify a couple of often-misunderstood concepts. We will write here about IRAs, but the same rules will apply to pretty much any “qualified” retirement plan. That means 401(k), 403(b), Keogh, SIMPLE, SEP-IRA and other plans will follow the same rules. Different tax rules apply to Roth accounts, but some of the same distribution principles will apply. For convenience, though, we will keep talking about IRAs.
There are actually several stages of IRA we might discuss. Let’s distinguish among them:
- A regular IRA is “owned” by the contributor. There may be some community property rules in the state in which the contributor resides, or some marital rights attaching to the IRA in non-community property states, but for tax purposes the contributor “owns” the IRA.
- One choice your beneficiary may have after your death is to “roll over” your IRA. If your beneficiary is your spouse, he or she can roll the IRA over into a new IRA in their name. This, incidentally, is where the IRA/401(k) (and etc.) distinction gets muddy; your spouse can roll your 401(k) account over into a new IRA. Those IRAs, whatever their source, are usually referred to as “roll-over” IRAs.
- Spouses are not the only ones who can roll IRAs into a new account. Non-spouse beneficiaries can also do something similar, and the resulting accounts are often called “roll-over” IRAs, too. But they are different. They are also “inherited” IRAs (see below), and the beneficiary must begin withdrawing money from an inherited IRA immediately.
- If a non-spouse beneficiary leaves your IRA right where it is, they become the owner but the IRA is now an “inherited” IRA. They can designate a beneficiary in case they die before withdrawing all the IRA funds, but any beneficiary will have to make withdrawals at your beneficiary’s rate. So, in other words, you name your 45-year-old daughter as beneficiary, you die, she names her 22-year-old son as her beneficiary, and upon her death he has to withdraw based on her actuarial life expectancy, not his own. She might have decided to move your IRA to another custodian; in that case she has an IRA that is both a “roll-over” and an “inherited” IRA.
With that background, the Internal Revenue Service has recently clarified how this all can work if you name a trust as beneficiary of your IRA. In Private Letter Ruling 201038019, issued on September 24, 2010, the IRA gave guidance to an individual taxpayer who requested approval for a proposed way of handling just this problem.
Private Letter Rulings, by way of background, are not intended to be official regulations or rules. They are individual guidance offered (for a substantial fee) to individual taxpayers who want to be sure they are not going to get in trouble. Although “private” in the sense that they apply only to that taxpayer, they are public in the sense that the IRS discloses them to everyone, and they do give some indication of how the IRS thinks about the issues addressed. You are probably safe proceeding on the basis of an Private Letter Ruling.
Here’s what the taxpayer proposed to do, and what the IRS approved, in the recent Private Letter Ruling:
- The decedent had named his revocable living trust as beneficiary of two IRAs. He had three children, each of whom was to receive an equal share of the trust after his death.
- The trustees of his trust proposed to divide each of the IRAs into three separate IRAs. In other words, there would be a total of six IRAs, still (for the moment) in the name of the decedent. Then each child would be named as beneficiary of two of the IRAs — one from each of the original IRAs.
- Once that was accomplished, each of the six “transitional” (their term) IRAs would be rolled over into a new IRA. Each of those new IRAs would name one of the children as the inherited owner, and each child could then name his or her own IRA beneficiaries.
- The custodians of those “final” six IRAs were each given a copy of the decedent’s revocable living trust, which was valid under state law and became irrevocable upon the decedent’s death. Those elements of the plan critical because they are required by federal tax law.
- Each of the three children would be required to begin withdrawing their IRAs immediately, and at the rate calculated for the oldest of the three children.
The taxpayer’s proposed approach was fine with the IRS, but it would not necessarily be the only way to proceed. The trustee of the trust might be permitted, for instance, to leave the IRAs right where they were, to withdraw the funds over the period of the oldest child’s life expectancy, and to distribute those withdrawn amounts to the three children. But the IRS guidance makes it clear that this approach works, too.
The Private Letter Ruling doesn’t address one question. Why would the original IRA owner have named his trust as beneficiary if the IRAs were going to be distributed outright to the three children anyway? In such a case, we usually recommend that the owner name his children as beneficiaries directly — thereby avoiding the shortened payout period based on the oldest child’s life expectancy, as well as the need to go through the intermediate steps described in the Private Letter Ruling.
There are a number of reasons the IRA owner might have chosen to leave his IRAs to his trust. Usually those reasons include a disabled spouse, a child receiving public benefits, an unequal distribution of proceeds or some other complication. The Private Letter Ruling in this case does not give us enough information to determine which, if any, of those conditions applied. Still, it does give us valuable guidance for those cases in which a trust is named as beneficiary of an IRA.