Ask Kim

How to Minimize Taxes When You Inherit an IRA

Kimberly Lankford

One key: Take minimum distributions each year based on your life expectancy.

I am the beneficiary of my mother’s IRA. What options do I have for withdrawing the money when she passes away?

SEE ALSO: The IRS Cracks Down on IRA Mistakes

You have several options when you inherit an IRA, and the one you choose can have a big impact on how much you pay in taxes. The rules are different for spouses than for nonspouse beneficiaries. They’re also different for traditional IRAs than they are for Roths, which generally are not taxed when left to heirs.

If you inherit a traditional IRA, you can cash out the account at any age -- even before you reach age 59½ -- without having to pay a 10% early-withdrawal penalty. But you will have to pay taxes on the money in the account (except for any nondeductible contributions).

If nonspouse beneficiaries don’t start taking withdrawals by December 31 of the year after the IRA owner dies, then they must withdraw all of the money in the account within five years. Otherwise, you must take minimum distributions from the account based on your own life expectancy, starting by December 31 of the year after the original owner’s death. These required withdrawals are similar to the required minimum distributions (RMDs) for IRA holders over age 70½, but they use a different life expectancy table. The withdrawals will still be taxable (except for any nondeductible contributions), but the rest of the money can continue to grow tax-deferred in the account.


Spouses who inherit a traditional IRA have extra choices. They can roll the money into their own IRA, so they don’t have to start taking required minimum distributions (based on their life expectancy) until they reach age 70½. But they’d have to pay a 10% early-withdrawal penalty for money they take from the account before age 59½.

If the original IRA owner was 70½ or older and had already started taking RMDs before he or she died, then the beneficiary can continue to take annual withdrawals based on the original owner’s life expectancy schedule or take withdrawals based on his or her own life expectancy.

The rules are different for Roth IRAs, which can usually be inherited tax-free. But you can’t keep the money in the account forever. Original Roth IRA owners don’t have to take required minimum distributions, but nonspouse heirs have to take annual distributions from the account based on their life expectancy, starting the year after the original IRA owner dies (spouses have the option of rolling a Roth into their own account). Or you can withdraw all of the money in the account within five years. Either way, you generally won’t have to pay taxes on the withdrawals.

For more information about these rules and the IRS life-expectancy tables for required withdrawals, see IRS Publication 590, “Individual Retirement Arrangements.”

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