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Inherited IRA Rules: Non-Spouse and Spouse Beneficiaries

The rules guiding the inheritance of an individual retirement account (IRA) when the IRA owner dies are complicated, but at least one aspect is straightforward: Whether a spouse or non-spouse is named the beneficiary of the account when the IRA owner dies, the current tax law allows the inheritance, or the total sum in the account, to be accepted tax-free.


Beneficiaries of the IRA may be able to withdraw from the account without penalty depending on who is inheriting and how they transfer the funds. Generally, spouses who inherit an IRA have more flexibility than non-spouse beneficiaries if they are the sole beneficiary of the account.1


Distributions from an inherited IRA may be required. Keep in mind, though, that any voluntary or required minimum distribution (RMD) from the account is taxable, depending on the type of IRA involved and the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.2


One of the determinations regarding if and when an inherited account must be depleted concerns the date when the account holder died. The SECURE Act changed the rules governing beneficiaries’ RMDs if the death occurred before 2020 versus during 2020 or later.

  • Individual retirement account assets are passed to the named beneficiaries, often the person’s spouse, upon death.
  • Spousal IRA beneficiaries have different rules and more options to consider when taking their required minimum distributions.
  • The date of the death of the IRA account holder—either before 2020, or during 2020 or afterwards—determines whether or not non-spousal beneficiaries have to withdraw all funds from an inherited IRA within 10 years.
  • IRAs can be split if there are multiple beneficiaries.
  • Be sure you are aware of the tax implications that apply to you for an inherited IRA.

Types of IRAs

A traditional IRA offers a tax deduction during the years in which contributions are made to the account. The contribution amount is used to reduce the person’s taxable income in the tax year for which the contribution was made. You can also make contributions that are not tax-deductible.3


IRAs grow on a tax-deferred basis. This means any accumulated earnings and interest are not taxed. However, when any money is withdrawn as a distribution, the amounts are taxed at the individual’s income tax rate in the year of the withdrawal.3


If the money is withdrawn before you reach the age of 59½, there’s a 10% tax penalty imposed by the IRS (unless you have a qualified exception) and the distribution would be taxed at your income tax rate.4 If you inherit a traditional IRA to which both deductible and nondeductible contributions were made, part of each distribution is taxable.


A Roth IRA doesn’t offer an upfront tax deduction like a traditional IRA, but withdrawals from a Roth are tax-free in retirement.3 If you inherit a Roth IRA, it is completely tax-free if the Roth IRA was held for at least five years, starting Jan. 1 of the tax year for which the first Roth IRA contribution was made.25


If you receive distributions from the Roth IRA before the end of the five-year holding period, they are tax-free to the extent that they represent a recovery of the owner’s contributions.6 However, any earnings or interest on the contribution amounts is taxable.2

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs)

The IRS has a minimum amount that accountholders must withdraw from an IRA and defined-contribution plans, such as 401(k) plans), each year. These mandatory withdrawals are called required minimum distributions. RMDs are designed to eventually exhaust the funds in the account. RMDs apply to traditional IRAs. Roth IRAs don’t require RMDs.7


If you own a traditional IRA, you must begin your distributions when you reach age 73, a new age limit established by the SECURE Act 2.0, which is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023. However, if you turned 72 before Jan. 1, 2023, you would have needed to begin taking RMDs at age 72, or at 70½ if you hit that milestone before Jan. 1, 2020.89


All RMD withdrawals are included in your taxable income except for any portion that was taxed earlier—say, if you made a contribution to the account with after-tax dollars.7


If you fail to take your RMD, you can be subject to a 25% penalty on the amount you should have—but didn’t—withdraw. However, this penalty can be reduced to 10% if you take the missed distribution within the correction window. According to the Act, this window begins on the date the penalty is imposed, which is usually Jan. 1 after the year you failed to take a distribution. The window ends on the earliest of:

  • The date the IRS mails you a notice of deficiency
  • The date the IRS assesses the penalty
  • The last day of the second taxable year after the penalty is imposed

If you take your RMD before the end of the correction window, your penalty will be reduced to 10%.10


The SECURE Act distinguishes an eligible designated beneficiary from other beneficiaries who inherit an account or IRA. Designated beneficiaries, who are not eligible designated beneficiaries, must withdraw the entire IRA by the end of the 10th calendar year (this is the 10-year rule) following the year of the employee or IRA owner’s post-2019 death.2

The SECURE Act and Inherited IRAs

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (SECURE) Act made major changes to IRA RMD rules, pushing the age of onset from 70½ to 72.9 The SECURE Act 2.0 further increased this to age 73.8

The SECURE Act also significantly changed some inherited IRA rules for non-spouse beneficiaries. Starting with those who inherited when the account holder died after Jan. 1, 2020, the SECURE Act requires the entire balance of the participant’s inherited IRA account to be distributed or withdrawn by the end of the 10th year following the original owner’s death (see exceptions below). The 10-year rule applies regardless of whether the participant dies before, on, or after, the required beginning date (RBD), the age at which they had to begin RMDs.2


In other words, you must withdraw the inherited funds within 10 years and pay income taxes on the distributed amounts. Since withdrawals are required, you won’t pay the 10% penalty if you’re under the age of 59½. But you must pay income taxes on the distributions, and you must eventually empty the account.


Following confusion over these changes, the IRS announced that it won’t “treat a beneficiary of an inherited IRA who was subject to the 10-year rule and who failed to take an RMD for 2021 and 2022 as having failed to take the correct RMD.”211


Note that the old rules that allowed a beneficiary who inherited an IRA to stretch out withdrawals over decades in some cases, are still in place if the person who owned the account died before Jan. 1, 2020.

Exceptions to the 10-Year Rule

Some beneficiaries of IRA accounts whose owners died in 2020 or later are exempted from the 10-year rule. This exemption applies to “eligible designated beneficiaries,” who can be:

  • A surviving spouse
  • A disabled or chronically ill person
  • A child of the deceased who hasn’t reached the age of majority
  • A person not more than 10 years younger than the IRA account owner

These beneficiaries are not obligated to deplete the IRA within 10 years and will likely take annual RMDs from it where the exact amount can be calculated based on their life expectancy.2


Beneficiaries have until Dec. 31 of the year following the IRA owner’s death to begin withdrawals. However, if the original account owner was required to take an RMD in the year they died but hadn’t yet, the beneficiary is required to take that RMD for them in that year, in the amount that the deceased would’ve withdrawn.2


Additionally, if the account holder died in 2020 or later, a surviving spouse beneficiary may delay the commencement of distributions until the end of the year when the original IRA owner would have begun taking RMDs or until the surviving spouse’s required beginning date.2

Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics – Beneficiary.”

The inheritance rules regarding Roth IRAs can be confusing. A Roth IRA’s original account holder never has to take RMDs, but those who inherit Roth IRAs do unless they fall into one of the exception categories.6

Special Rules for Surviving Spouses

Spouses who inherit an IRA have more flexibility than non-spousal beneficiaries regarding when they must withdraw the funds. The spouse can treat the IRA as their own, designating themselves as the account owner. The spouse can also roll it over into their own, pre-existing IRA. Finally, they can treat themselves as the account beneficiary.2


The choice is usually based on when the spouse is due to take their RMDs or whether the deceased owner was taking their RMDs or not, at the time of their death. The chosen option can impact the size of the required minimum distributions from the inherited funds and, as a result, have income tax implications for the spousal beneficiary.


Depending on when the account owner died and whether it was before or after their required beginning date (of taking RMDs), a surviving spouse may also choose to follow either the five-year rule or the 10-year rule.2

Surviving Spouse Becomes the IRA Owner

If you are the surviving spouse and sole beneficiary of your deceased spouse’s IRA, you can elect to be treated as the owner of the IRA and not as the beneficiary. By selecting to be treated as the owner, you determine the required minimum distribution as if you were the owner beginning with the year you elect or are considered the owner.2


If choosing a rollover, spouses have 60 days from receiving the inherited distribution to roll it over into their own IRA as long as the distribution is not a required minimum distribution.12 By combining the funds, the spouse doesn’t need to take a required minimum distribution until they reach the age of 73.


Becoming the owner of the IRA funds can be a good choice if the deceased spouse is older than the spousal beneficiary because it delays the RMDs. If the IRA was a Roth, and you are the spouse, you can treat it as if it had been your own Roth all along, in which case you won’t be subject to RMDs during your lifetime.6


Surviving spouses can parse the account and roll over some of it to their own IRA and leave the balance in the inherited account. If you make a rollover and need funds from it before age 59½, you’ll be subject to the 10% penalty.4

Surviving Spouse Acts As the Beneficiary

RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the IRA owner.13 Spousal beneficiaries can plan the RMDs from an inherited IRA to take advantage of delaying the RMDs as long as possible.


If the IRA owner dies before the year in which they reach age 73, distributions to the spousal beneficiary don’t need to begin until the year in which the original owner reaches age 73.14 After this, the surviving spouse’s RMDs can be calculated based on their life expectancy. This can be helpful if the surviving spouse is older than the deceased spouse since it delays RMDs from the inherited funds until the deceased spouse would have turned age 73.


If the original owner had already started getting RMDs or reached their RBD, the age at which they had to begin RMDs, at the time of death, the spouse can continue the distributions that were originally calculated based on the owner’s life expectancy.14


The surviving spouse can also submit a new RMD schedule based on their life expectancy. This process would mean applying the life expectancy for their age found in the Single Life Expectancy Table (Table I in Appendix B of IRS Publication 590-B).15


As a non-spouse with an inherited IRA, you have to set up a new account. The title of the account will conform to tax law, reading: “[Owner’s name], deceased [date of death], IRA FBO [your name], Beneficiary” (FBO means “for the benefit of”). If you put the account in your name, the entire balance is treated as a distribution, and you owe taxes on the lump sum.2

Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics – Beneficiary.”

Special IRA Transfer Rule

Provided you are 70½, you can transfer up to $100,000 from an IRA directly to a qualified charity. The transfer, which is called a qualified charitable distribution (QCD) even though no tax deduction is allowed, is tax-free and can include RMDs. The transfer can satisfy your RMD for the year up to $100,000 and you’re not taxed on the amount.16 This tax break was made permanent by the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, which became law on Dec. 18, 2015.17

Multiple Beneficiaries

If there are multiple beneficiaries, the IRA can be split into separate accounts for each one, a smart choice if one beneficiary is a non-spouse, subject to the 10-year rule, and the other is a spouse or in one of the other special categories.18


If you want to split the IRA, you must do so by Dec. 31 of the year following the year of the original owner’s death.19

Handling Tax Issues

When taking RMDs from a traditional IRA, you will have income taxes to report. You’ll receive Form 1099-R showing the amount of the distribution. You must then report in on your Form 1040 or 1040A for the year.20


If the distribution is sizable, you may need to adjust your wage withholding or pay estimated taxes to account for the tax that you’ll owe on the RMDs. These distributions, which are called nonperiodic distributions, are subject to an automatic 10% withholding unless you opt for no withholding by filing Form W-4R.2122


If the IRA owner died with a large estate on which federal estate taxes were paid, as the beneficiary you are entitled to a tax deduction for the share of these taxes allocable to the IRA.12


The federal income tax deduction for federal estate tax on income concerning a decedent is a miscellaneous itemized deduction. You can’t claim it if you use the standard deduction instead of itemizing. It is not subject to the 2%-of-adjusted-gross-income threshold applicable to most other miscellaneous itemized deductions.232425

Handling Tax Issues

This depends on how long it’s been since the account owner’s death.


For the year that the account owner died, you can calculate your distribution by following these steps26, unless the account owner already took their RMD for this year27:

  • Find the IRA’s balance on December 31 of the previous year.
  • Find the distribution period from this table (Table III) for the account owner’s age on the account owner’s birthday this year.
  • Divide Line 1 by Line 2.

For the following years after the account owner’s death, what you can do with an inherited IRA will depend on certain details, including your relationship to the account owner, whether they died after 2019 (because the inherited IRA rules changed due to the SECURE Act), and whether they died before or after their required beginning date, which is when they were supposed to begin taking RMDs.2


For example, if the account holder died in 2020 or later, a spouse would have several options, including rolling over the account owner’s IRA into their own account or, if the account holder died before their required beginning date, delay taking RMDs until the account owner would have turned 72 years old.2

What Are the RMDs for an Inherited Roth IRA?

The inheritance rules regarding Roth IRAs can be confusing. A Roth IRA’s original account holder never has to take RMDs, but those who inherit Roth IRAs do unless they fall into one of the exception categories.7

Are RMDs Required for Inherited IRAs in 2023?

Yes. Effective beginning tax year 2022, the IRS provided new life expectancy tables to calculate required minimum distributions from retirement accounts. The updated data reflects the fact that people are living longer.28

What Is the 10-Year Distribution Rule for Inherited IRAs?

The SECURE act changed the RMDs for inherited traditional and Roth IRAs when the death of the account holder occurred in 2020 or later. Under the 10-year rule, the value of an IRA that has been inherited by a non-spouse beneficiary needs to be zero by Dec. 31 of the 10th anniversary year of the owner’s death.2


Before this legislation was passed, beneficiaries, like children and grandchildren who inherited an IRA from a parent or grandparent, could “stretch” withdrawals from these accounts over decades. For earlier inheritances, the same old rules still apply. Now, only the surviving spouse and “eligible designated beneficiaries” get to benefit from the earlier tax treatment: minor children of the original account holder, up to age 21; those who are chronically ill or permanently disabled; and those who are within 10 years of the age of the original account holder.29

What Are the Tax Implications of an Inherited IRA?

There are some similarities between an IRA that you inherit and one that you have for yourself. For instance, the earnings and interest grow on a tax-free basis.


Withdrawals you make (earlier or when it comes time to take distributions) are taxed at your regular income tax rate for traditional and SEP IRAs.


For Roth IRAs, withdrawals are tax-free as long as the account was set up within five years. Remember, if the account is less than five years old, you can withdraw any contributions on a tax-free basis but any earnings you take out become taxable.

How Can I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?

There are a few things you can do to avoid paying taxes on an inherited IRA. The most obvious thing is to not take a lump-sum distribution.


If you inherit the IRA from your spouse, wait until the required minimum distributions begin or take distributions based on your own life expectancy. If you are a non-spouse, consider depleting the account over a 10-year period. This way, you can change the amount you withdraw based on your income to balance out any additional tax consequences.


If you inherit a Roth IRA, your withdrawals are tax-free as long as they are considered qualified distributions. As with anything else, be sure to talk to a tax or investment specialist about what options are best for you.

The Bottom Line

If you inherit an IRA, you are generally required to take distributions from the account, which may be taxable. Taxation depends on the type of IRA involved and the relationship of the beneficiary to the deceased.


The SECURE Act requires the entire balance of the participant’s inherited IRA account to be distributed or withdrawn within 10 years of the death of the original owner. However, there are exceptions to the 10-year rule, and spouses inheriting an IRA have a much broader range of options available to them.

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