What’s in a Name? – Why It’s Important to Name a Beneficiary for Your IRA

Many people probably don’t think too much about how important it is to name a beneficiary for their IRAs.  However, as my family recently found out, ignoring this important detail when setting up your IRA can be costly from a tax perspective.

I recently received a distribution check from an IRA of my father, who passed away last year.  My father was a very careful planner, so I was quite shocked at his lack of tax planning with his IRA.  When setting up his IRA he named his estate as the beneficiary of the IRA (this is equivalent to not naming a beneficiary at all).  This meant that when he passed away the estate had to be probated, even though the IRAs were the only assets requiring probate in his estate.  IRAs that have named beneficiaries are generally non-probate assets, meaning that they pass directly to the beneficiaries instead of passing through a will.  That was the first problem.

The larger problem came because of the lack of choices he left us by naming his estate as beneficiary.  In a Traditional IRA, required minimum distributions must begin no later than April 1 of the year after the IRA owner turns age 70 ½.  This is known as the required beginning date.  My father died before his required beginning date.  Since his estate is a non-individual beneficiary, the IRA had to be distributed within 5 years, or by December 31, 2011.  If my father had died after his required beginning date without having a named individual beneficiary, the yearly required minimum distributions would have been based on his remaining life expectancy in the year of his death reduced by one for each year following the year of his death.

In contrast, the choices available to our family had my father simply named beneficiaries would have been much more favorable.  Assuming my father wanted his wife and 3 sons to split the IRA in the same percentages he listed in the will, he could have named us specifically instead of requiring the distribution to be made through his estate.  If the IRA was not split into separate IRAs by September 30 of the year following the year of his death, then required minimum distributions would have been based on the remaining life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary, which was of course his wife.  As his wife is a few years younger than he was, this certainly would have been a large improvement over taking the entire IRA over the next 5 years.

Had my father named the 4 of us as beneficiaries specifically, an even better plan would have been to separate the IRAs into 4 beneficiary IRAs with each of us as the sole beneficiary prior to September 30 of 2007 (the year following his death).  In his wife’s case this would mean that she could choose to take all the money out within 5 tax years, leave the IRA as a beneficiary IRA, thereby allowing her to take distributions without penalty even if she was under age 59 1/2, or she could have elected to treat the IRA as her own.  In the case of his sons, we could have taken the IRA over 5 years or we could have stretched the distributions over our life expectancy.  For example, in my case I could have elected to take the distributions over the next 39 years instead of all at once!

Since I expected nothing from my father’s estate and have no critical need for the funds, I would have taken the longer distribution period.  Instead I must add the distribution check to my taxable income for this year, which in my tax bracket means a substantial bite out of the money for taxes.  Since I am reasonably good at investing in my self-directed IRAs, having the ability to stretch the distributions out over 39 years would have meant an inheritance of many times what I will end up with after taxes because I had to take it all within 5 years.

The problem is even worse for my father’s wife, who will have an extraordinarily large tax burden this year, since she chose to take her share of the IRA out all at once instead of over a 5 year period.  While I am certainly grateful that my father thought of me in his will, simply naming specific beneficiaries would have made his legacy worth so much more to his family.

Don’t let it happen to your family!  Review your IRA beneficiary designations, and if you haven’t already done so, name your beneficiaries.  Your family will be glad you did.