By Robin Crouch
Unfortunately, there are cases where Dad died, Mom was the named beneficiary, but she predeceased him. OR, Mom inherited the IRA and died before naming her own beneficiary.
Each IRA has it's own rules and each IRA custodian has their own agreement with language that will indicate who inherits the IRA when there are no named beneficiaries. Most agreements default to the estate of the deceased IRA owner.
A designated beneficiary is a living, breathing person who can stretch distributions over their own life expectancy and pay the income tax accordingly. Traditional IRAs are typically funded with pretax dollars. Distributions out of the account after age 59½ are taxed as ordinary income at each individual's tax rate.
“The Estate of” does not have a life expectancy and has a limited ability to stretch distributions. If the IRA owner died before April 1 of the year after he turned 70½, the IRA must be emptied in five years. If he died after the required beginning date, you may have the option to stretch distributions over his remaining life expectancy.
Most IRA custodians will only make payments to the estate and not to the beneficiaries of the estate so stretching the distribution may not be an option. Instead, the custodian will pay the entire IRA balance to the estate. Not only is this is a taxable distribution and cannot be undone, the probate attorney and the executor's fees are based on the assets of the estate.
So, don't let your retirement funds go down the drain. It is very important that you seek professional advice to understand how your tax-qualified account works after you pass away and that your beneficiaries are named correctly to avoid the pitfalls of paying unnecessary taxes and probate fees.
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