Will Your Kids Inherit a Tax Bomb from You?

You’ve carefully saved a lot in tax-deferred retirement accounts, and you hope to pass much of that wealth to your loved ones. Unfortunately, your legacy for your heirs will also include a massive tax bill.

A mom brushes away hair out of her daughter's face.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Editor’s note: This is part four of a seven-part series. It dives more deeply into the issue of how tax-deferred saving can saddle your heirs with massive tax liabilities. If you missed the introductory article, you may find it helpful to start here.

Parents want the best for their children, and many work hard to provide a generous inheritance for the next generation. Unfortunately, the tax bite that can come with inheriting a traditional IRA or other pre-tax savings account can be astonishing, tainting your legacy.

Recall from my part-two article on required minimum distributions (RMDs), the case study of 40-year-old couple who saved $500,000 combined in pre-tax retirement accounts and who continue to max out pre-tax contributions until retirement at age 65.

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Despite taking RMDs of $15.6 million from age 72 to 90, the couple’s tax-deferred accounts keep growing, reaching $16.1 million by age 90. Let’s assume our couple dies at age 90 and the inherited tax-deferred accounts are divided equally between their two surviving children.

Prior to passage of the SECURE Act in 2019, non-spouse heirs typically could calculate RMDs on inherited IRAs using their own life expectancy, which allowed them to “stretch” out the RMD over a much longer period, perhaps 30 years or more. That’s no longer the case.

Under current tax law, heirs have 10 years to fully deplete any inherited IRAs, though they can choose how much to take out each year, from nothing at all to everything at once. While that flexibility can be valuable from a tax-planning perspective, it still means that most people inheriting IRAs will have significantly fewer years to take their RMDs, meaning significantly more taxable income during that decade. Recall that RMD income from tax-deferred accounts is taxed as ordinary income.

For the two surviving heirs in our case study, if we assume zero growth in the liability (unlikely) and they take distributions of 10% annually for 10 years in order to smooth income and taxes, each will have $809,105 of taxable RMD income annually for 10 years. This income is likely to hit during their peak earning years, pushing them into very high tax brackets.

Clearly, this is a first-world problem. But do you want your kids to inherit that kind of tax nightmare?

So far this series has looked at how tax-deferred saving can create problems with RMD income, Medicare means testing surcharges and inherited tax liability. My next article will start looking at solutions to these problems.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

David McClellan
Partner, Forum Financial Management

David McClellan is a partner with Forum Financial Management, (opens in new tab) LP, a Registered Investment Adviser that manages more than $7 billion in client assets. He is also VP and Head of Wealth Management Solutions at AiVante, a technology company that uses artificial intelligence to predict lifetime medical expenses. Previously David spent nearly 15 years in executive roles with Morningstar (where he designed retirement income planning software) and Pershing.  David is based in Austin, Texas, but works with clients nationwide. His practice focuses on financial life coaching and retirement planning. He frequently helps clients assess and defuse retirement tax bombs.