Self-Directed Beneficiary IRAs: RMD and Investing Tips

Photo of a man hugging his mother in the kitchen.If you’ve inherited an IRA from a parent or other loved one, it is likely that you have a beneficiary IRA. These can be powerful accounts, but you need to understand the required minimum distribution (“RMD”) rules for your beneficiary IRA to properly utilize it. The inherited IRA may be a Traditional or Roth IRA and there are three different distribution options you may elect when you inherit the IRA. These distribution options dictate how you can invest the account. Please note that if you inherit an account from a spouse that you can just do a spousal rollover and consider the account as yours. This article is for those inheriting an IRA from a non-spouse.

Distribution Options

You will have three distribution options upon the death of your loved one to receive the funds from their IRA. In general, the best option is the “Life Expectancy Method” as it allows you to delay the withdrawal of funds from the IRA, and allows the money invested to grow tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth). The three options are outlined fully below:

1. Lump Sum

The first option is to simply take a lump-sum and be taxed on the full distribution. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty (regardless of your age or their deceased owner), but you are taxed on the amount distributed if it is a traditional IRA. You’re also giving up the tax-deferred (traditional) or tax-free (Roth) benefits of the account. Don’t take this option. It’s the worst tax and financial option you have.

2. Life Expectancy Method – Stretch IRA

The Life Expectancy Method is the best option. Under this option, you take distributions from the inherited IRA over your life-time based on the value of the account. These distributions are required for traditional IRAs and even for inherited Roth IRAs. For example, if you inherited a $100,000 IRA at age 50, you would have to take about $3,000 a year as a required minimum distribution each year and the rest can stay invested. The RMD amount changes each year as you age and as the account value grows or decreases. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty when you pull money out of the account regardless of your age. Traditional beneficiary IRA distributions are taxable to the beneficiary while Roth IRA distributions are tax-free. And yes, beneficiary Roth IRAs are subject to RMD even though there is no RMD for regular Roth IRAs.

There is pending legislation which the House has passed but the Senate has sat on which would limit the ability to stretch the IRA out to a maximum of 10 years. Even if that legislation passes, the Stretch IRA will be a good option to at least continue the tax benefits of the inherited IRA for 10 years.

3. 5-Year Method

This option is available to all inherited Roth accounts, but is only available to inherited traditional IRAs where the deceased account owner was under age 70 1/2 at the date of their death. Under this option, the beneficiary IRA is not subject to RMD. However, it must be fully distributed by December 31st of the fifth year following the year of the account owner’s death. There is no 10% early withdrawal penalty, and distributions are subject to tax. Again, this option is only available to traditional accounts.

Investing with a Self-Directed Beneficiary IRA

Yes, you can self-direct your beneficiary IRA. Before you do, make sure you understand the amount of funds you’ll need to take as an RMD, and that you will have available cash in the account to cover those RMDs. As I described above, assume you are 50 and inherited a beneficiary IRA for $100,000. You will need to take annual distributions of around $3,000. So, if you invest all of the $100,000 into an illiquid asset, then you will be unable to take RMDs and you will force the IRA account to pay stiff penalties. Consequently, when making a self-directed investment from a beneficiary IRA, you must take into account the amount of the investment, the total value of the account, and the time-line of the investment (when will it generate cash back to the IRA). If you inherited the $100,000 account above, you may decide to only invest $70,000 of the beneficiary IRA into an illiquid investment (e.g. real estate or private company), while leaving the other $30,000 to be invested into liquid investments like publicly-traded stocks, CDs, cash or mutual funds. This will leave funds available for RMD until such time as the illiquid investment generates income or is sold for profit.

Stretching out the benefits of an inherited IRA can be powerful, but make sure you plan for RMDs before you make any self-directed investment from your beneficiary IRA.

Correcting Your IRA’s RMD Failures and Avoiding the Penalty

Image of the IRS logo with the text "Correcting Your IRA’s RMD Failures and Avoiding the Penalty."If you failed to take required minimum distributions (RMD’s) from your IRA, then you are subject to a 50% penalty. The penalty is 50% on the amount you should have distributed from your IRA to yourself. It’s a steep penalty for simply failing to pay yourself from your own IRA and it’s something every IRA owner with RMD needs to understand. For my prior article explaining RMD rules for IRAs, please click here.

Waiver of 50% Penalty Tax

If you’ve failed to take RMD for your IRA, you have a chance at obtaining a waiver from the penalty but you must admit the mistake to the IRS by filing IRS form 5329. In the instructions to form 5329, the IRS outlines the waiver process to avoid the 50% penalty tax.

What You Need to Do

  1. Complete Section IX of Form 5329. You need to specify what you should have taken as RMD  and then you calculate the penalty tax due. You then write the letters “RC”next to the amount you want waived on line 52.
  2. Statement of Explanation. Attach a Statement of Explanation outlining two items.
    1. First, explain what was the “reasonable error” that caused a failure to take RMD. The IRS does not provide a definition or acceptable examples of “reasonable error”. See IRC 4974(d)(1). From my own experience and from examples I’ve heard from colleagues, the IRS does recognize reasonable errors and oversights in most situations where there is reason for the error. This would include situations such mental health, to turning 70 ½ and being new to RMD, to relying on bad advice from an advisor, custodian or accountant, to holding an ill-liquid asset for sale in a self directed IRA.
    2. Second, explain the reasonable steps taken to correct the error. Ideally, by the time you’re filing the exemption request you would’ve already contacted your IRA custodian and would’ve taken the late RMD so that by the time you submit the RMD penalty tax waiver, you would be caught up and would have already remedied the error.  This makes for an easy and clean explanation of what steps you’re going to take as your explanation will be that you already corrected the RMD failure once you realized the error.

Keep in mind that RMD failures won’t go away as your IRA custodian will be updating your account each year with the IRS. Eventually, you’ll start getting collection letters from the IRS requesting the penalty tax. Consequently, IRA owners are well advised to correct the RMD failure and request the wavier as soon as they become aware of the error or oversight.