Second Marriage IRA

Designating Your Spouse versus a Trust for your Spouse as Beneficiary of your IRA

A common estate planning principle communicated by spouses who have children from prior marriages and relationships is, “If I predecease my spouse, I want my assets to be available for my surviving spouse’s needs, but when my surviving spouse dies, I want my assets to revert back to MY children.”

This can get complicated when the estate consists of Traditional IRAs, as many estates do. Let’s take the example of a Husband and Wife who each have two children. When H dies, his IRA is worth $1,000,000. In the year after Husband dies, Wife is 80 years old.  

When it comes to income tax planning and IRAs, most recommend to keep the IRA balance as large as possible, allowing an IRA owner to earn investment income on deferred income taxes. 

In this post we will discuss two strategies: (1) Naming the surviving spouse as the designated beneficiary of Husband’s IRA; and (2) Naming a trust (for the benefit of the spouse) as the beneficiary of Husband’s IRA. 

When a surviving spouse is the designated beneficiary of an IRA, the surviving spouse’s ability to roll over inherited benefits to her own IRA gives her a powerful tax-deferring option, not available to any other IRA beneficiaries. If the surviving spouse holds the IRA as an owner, her Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) are determined using the Uniform Lifetime Table under which her Applicable Distribution Period (ADP) is the joint life expectancy of the surviving spouse and a hypothetical 10-years-younger beneficiary. If she withdraws only the RMDs under the Uniform Lifetime Table, the IRA is guaranteed to outlive the surviving spouse. And it’s likely that the IRA will be worth more in the surviving spouse’s late 80’s than it was when she inherited it at age 80. 

Let’s look at some numbers. Since Wife can use the Uniform Lifetime Table, her first required distribution the year after Husband dies (assuming a $1,000,000 IRA value) is $53,500 (5.35% of the IRA value). The next year her RMD is 5.59%. And the next year, 5.85%. If the investment performance of the IRA exceeds these distribution percentages, and she only takes the RMDs, the IRA will grow.  

The downside, however, is that since Wife is treated as the owner of the IRA, Wife can name whoever she wants as the beneficiary of beneficiaries of her IRA. She could exclude Husband’s children by naming Wife’s children, or perhaps even Wife’s new spouse that she married after Husband died! 

So instead of naming Wife as the designated beneficiary of Husband’s IRA, Husband considers naming a trust for Wife as beneficiary. The trust instrument might provide that RMDs go to Wife for her lifetime, but when Wife subsequently dies, trust assets revert back to Husband’s children. But since a trust was named as the beneficiary of Husband’s IRA, even if the trust qualifies as a “see-through” trust, RMDs after Husband dies will be based on the single life expectancy of the surviving spouse (Wife) which results in substantially less income tax deferral than would be available if the surviving spouse were named as the outright beneficiary and rolled over the benefits into her own IRA. 

Let’s look back at the numbers. If a trust for Wife is named as beneficiary of Husband’s IRA, the first RMD when Wife is 80 (based on the same $1,000,000 IRA) will be $98,000 (9.8% of the IRA value). At age 81, the RMD will exceed 10% of the account value. And each year, the percentage will increase. If Wife lives long enough after Husband dies, the RMDs based on the required single life expectancy table will cause most of the benefits to be distributed to Wife outright which will defeat the purpose of trying to protect those IRA assets for Husband’s children. 

So keep in mind that there are tradeoffs when it comes to naming beneficiaries of IRAs.