Can You Leave an IRA to a Beneficiary?

Conversations about death and legacies aren’t always easy. However, defining what matters most to a person is a good way to start estate planning. IRAs can play an important role in estate planning and legacy creation, as discussed in a recent article entitled “IRA Gifts at Death” from The Street.

Let’s say someone has a large portion of their assets in an investment account, a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. If they want to avoid having their estate go through probate but aren’t in love with the idea of building trusts, they need to be sure their IRAs have beneficiaries. At their passing, the assets will flow directly to the beneficiaries.

Make sure that at least one living beneficiary is on the account. If the primary beneficiary is a spouse, be sure to also have contingent beneficiaries, or designate the beneficiary as “per stirpes,” which means if the named beneficiary passes before the account owner, their share of the assets automatically passes to their lineal descendants.

If there’s no valid beneficiary, the contents of an IRA of any kind could end up in the probate estate, creating a nightmare for heirs.

If an intended beneficiary is a charitable organization, passing an IRA is a powerful giving strategy. The organization must be a 501(c)(3), a tax-exempt organization. When IRAs are passed to the charity, the charity doesn’t pay taxes on the gift.

Individual beneficiaries do have to pay taxes on assets received from traditional IRAs, and when and how much they pay depends upon their relationship to the IRA owner. If the recipient is not the spouse, not a minor and not a disabled adult, the heir will need to take taxable withdrawals from the traditional IRA over the course of ten years from the date of death of the original account owner. Some people take a set amount annually, so they can plan for the taxes due. For others, a low-income year is the time to take withdrawals, since their tax bracket may be lower.

Another IRA distribution strategy is to divide IRAs into separate accounts, allowing for increased control over the amount of assets passing to a specific beneficiary. One IRA could be used for your charitable giving, while another IRA could be used to benefit family members.

Changing beneficiaries on your IRA is relatively easy. Checking on beneficiary names should be done every time you review your estate plan, which should happen every three to five years. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best strategy for your IRAs. Generally speaking, traditional IRAs are best to gift for charities. Roth IRAs are best to gift to family or loved ones. This is because the money in a Roth IRA is inherited tax free and can remain tax free for a number of years.

Reference: The Street (July 17, 2022) “IRA Gifts at Death”

How Do I Plan for Taxes after Death?

Let’s get this out of the way: preparing for death doesn’t mean it will come sooner. Quite the opposite is true. Most people find preparing and completing their estate plan leads to a sense of relief. They know if and when any of life’s unexpected events occur, like incapacity or death, they have done what was necessary to prepare, for themselves and their loved ones.

It’s a worthwhile task, says the recent article titled “Preparing for the certainties in life: death and taxes” from Cleveland Jewish News and doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Some attorneys use questionnaires to gather information to be brought into the office for the first meeting, while others use secure online portals to gather information. Then, the estate planning attorney and you will have a friendly, candid discussion of your wishes and what decisions need to be made.

Several roles need to be filled. The executor carries out the instructions in the will. A guardian is in charge of minor children, in the event both parents die. A person named as your attorney in fact (or agent) in your Power of Attorney (POA) will be in charge of the business side of your life. A POA can be as broad or limited as you wish, from managing one bank account to pay household expenses to handling everything. A Health Care Proxy is used to appoint your health care agent to have access to your medical information and speak with your health care providers, if you are unable to.

Your estate plan can be designed to minimize probate. Probate is the process where the court reviews your will to ensure its validity, approves the person you appoint to be executor and allows the administration of your estate to go forward.

Depending on your jurisdiction, probate can be a long, costly and stressful process. In Ohio, the law requires probate to be open for at least six months after the date of death, even if your estate dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

Part of the estate planning process is reviewing assets to see how and if they might be taken out of your probate estate. This may involve creating trusts, legal entities to own property and allow for easier distribution to heirs. Charitable donations might become part of your plan, using other types of trusts to make donations, while preserving assets or creating an income stream for loved ones.

Minimizing taxes should be a part of your estate plan. While the federal estate tax exemption right now is historically high $12.06 million per person, on January 1, 2025, it drops to $5.49 million adjusted for inflation. While 2025 may seem like a long way off, if your estate plan is being done now, you might not see it again for three or five years. Planning for this lowered number makes sense.

Reviewing an estate plan should take place every three to five years to keep up with changes in the law, including the lowered estate tax. Large events in your family also need to prompt a review—trigger events like marriage, death, birth, divorce and the sale of a business or a home.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (May 13, 2022) “Preparing for the certainties in life: death and taxes”

Can Estate Planning Reduce Taxes?

With numerous bills still being considered by Congress, people are increasingly aware of the need to explore options for tax planning, charitable giving, estate planning and inheritances. Tax sensitive strategies for the near future are on everyone’s mind right now, according to the article “Inheritance, estate planning and charitable giving: 4 strategies to reduce taxes now” from Market Watch. These are the strategies to be aware of.

Offsetting capital gains. Capital gains are the profits made from selling an asset which has appreciated in value since it was first acquired. These gains are taxed, although the tax rates on capital gains are lower than ordinary income taxes if the asset is owned for more than a year. Losses on assets reduce tax liability. This is why investors “harvest” their tax losses, to offset gains. The goal is to sell the depreciated asset and at the same time, to sell an appreciated asset.

Consider Roth IRA conversions. People used to assume they would be in a lower tax bracket upon retirement, providing an advantage for taking money from a traditional IRA or other retirement accounts. Income taxes are due on the withdrawals for traditional IRAs. However, if you retire and receive Social Security, pension income, dividends and interest payments, you may find yourself in the enviable position of having a similar income to when you were working. Good for the income, bad for the tax bite.

Converting an IRA into a Roth IRA is increasingly popular for people in this situation. Taxes must be paid, but they are paid when the funds are moved into a Roth IRA. Once in the Roth IRA account, the converted funds grow tax free and there are no further taxes on withdrawals after the IRA has been open for five years. You must be at least 59½ to do the conversion, and you do not have to do it all at once. However, in many cases, this makes the most sense.

Charitable giving has always been a good tax strategy. In the past, people would simply write a check to the organization they wished to support. Today, there are many different ways to support nonprofits, allowing for better advantages.

One of the most popular ways to give today is a DAF—Donor Advised Fund. These are third-party funds created for supporting charity. They work in a few different ways. Let’s say you have sold a business or inherited money and have a significant tax bill coming. By contributing funds to a DAF, you will get a tax break when you put the funds into a DAF. The DAF can hold the funds—they do not have to be contributed to charity, but as long as they are in the DAF account, you receive the tax benefit.

Another way to give to charity is through your IRA’s Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) by giving the minimum amount you are required to take from your IRA every year to the charity. Otherwise, your RMD is taxable as income. If you make a charitable donation using the RMD, you get the tax deduction, and the nonprofit gets a donation.

Giving while living is growing in popularity, as parents and grandparents can have pleasure of watching loved ones benefit from the impact of a gift. A person can give up to $16,000 to any other person every year, with no taxes due on the gift. The money is then out of the estate and the recipient receives the full amount of the gift.

All of these strategies should be reviewed with your estate planning attorney with an eye to your overall estate plan, to ensure they work seamlessly to achieve your overall goals.

Reference: Market Watch (Feb. 18, 2022) “Inheritance, estate planning and charitable giving: 4 strategies to reduce taxes now”