An inherited 401k plan isn’t necessarily a different kind of retirement plan from a regular 401k plan in the hands of the original participant. However, the rules around an inherited 401k plan are unusual enough to warrant their own review.
When an individual inherits a 401k plan, generally this individual must begin taking minimum distributions from the plan, on a preset schedule. There are a few things to consider, the first of which is whether the beneficiary is the spouse of the original owner, or another person (non-spouse).
If the beneficiary is a spouse, special options are available for handling the inherited 401k plan. As a spouse-beneficiary, you have 3 primary options to choose from:
- You can leave the money in the 401k plan.
- You can rollover the money from the 401k plan to an inherited IRA.
- You can rollover the money from the 401k plan into an IRA in your own name (not the same as #2).
If you inherit a 401k plan from someone other than your spouse, you are limited to either #1 or #2 above. We’ll go over the three options in detail next.
Leave the money in the 401k plan
If you choose to leave your inherited 401k in the original account, you now have to figure out the Required Minimum Distribution for the account.
If the original owner was over age 70½ and already taking RMDs from the account, you must continue with those same distributions based on the lifetime of the original owner. You can choose to take out more each year, but you have to at least take out the minimum that applies as if the original owner were still living.
These same rules apply if the original owner was still employed past 70½ and not subject to RMDs. The RMDs must begin in the year following the original owner’s death, in this case, and will use the original owner’s age to determine the amount of each RMD.
If the original owner was younger than age 70½ at his or her death and therefore not subject to RMDs, the rule is different if you are the spouse or a non-spouse beneficiary.
If you are the spouse of the original owner you have the option of delaying until the original owner would have been 70½ years old before taking the RMDs. In this case, the RMDs would be based on the decedent’s assumed age (had he or she still been living) in each year of distribution.
If you are a non-spouse beneficiary, the default rule is that you must withdraw the entire amount of the 401k account by December 31 of the fifth year following the year that the original owner died. You can take some money out each year, or take it all at once, it just has to be withdrawn before the end of the fifth year.
Some plans (although these are relatively few) have another option for the non-spouse beneficiary: to stretch RMDs out based on the beneficiary’s lifetime. This is similar to the option described below in the case where you rollover the account to an inherited IRA. It’s more often the case that the rollover is undertaken to enable stretching payments, as few 401k plans include a stretch feature.
In all cases, you have the option of taking more than the minimum out of the account each year. In none of these cases will you have a 10% penalty applied for early distribution, but you will owe income tax on all pre-tax money withdrawn.
Rollover the inherited 401k to an inherited IRA
If you choose instead to rollover the inherited 401k to an inherited IRA, you have a bit more flexibility, but only a bit. Not all plans allow this rollover option – some plans are more restrictive and force only the 5-year complete payout option detailed previously.
As before when leaving the money in the 401k account, if the decedent original owner was already taking RMDs (or would have except for being still employed and over age 70½), you must at a minimum continue those RMDs based on the lifetime of the original owner.
However, if the original owner was under age 70½ and therefore not taking RMDs, by rolling over the account to an inherited IRA you have the option of “stretching” the IRA distributions. If you’re younger than the original owner was, you can start taking RMDs based on your age, which will result in a longer timeline for distribution of the funds as compared to using the original owner’s age.
Rollover the inherited 401k to your own IRA
This option is only available for a spouse beneficiary.
As a spouse, you have the option of rolling over the 401k plan to an IRA in your own name (not an inherited IRA). This action can cause restrictions that you may not want, but it could open up flexibility as well.
If you are under age 59½ and are the spouse beneficiary, rolling over the inherited 401k plan to your own IRA will eliminate your ability to withdraw funds from the account without penalty, unless you meet one of the exceptions. Once you reach age 59½ or an exception applies, you will be able to access the money without penalties. It’s important to note that this rollover action does completely eliminate your ability to withdraw funds without penalty before age 59½.
If you’re between 59½ and 70½ years old, rolling over the inherited 401k to your own IRA can give you more flexibility. By doing this action, if your late spouse was already subject to RMDs, you can delay RMDs now until you reach age 70½. This is because the account is no longer associated with your late spouse – it’s your IRA. You also can freely withdraw any amount for any purpose and only pay ordinary income tax on the distribution, no early withdrawal penalty will apply.
If you’re over age 70½ and you rollover the inherited 401k plan to your own IRA, you must take RMDs based on your lifetime and the account balance in your IRA.
As before, except for the case where you’re under age 59½ (when penalty-free withdrawals are not allowed), you are allowed to take more than the minimum distribution each year, but you must at least take the minimum.
Roth Conversion of Inherited 401k
One of the provisions that is available to the individual who inherits a 401k or other Qualified Retirement Plan (QRP) is the ability to convert the fund to a Roth IRA.
This gives the beneficiary of the original QRP the option of having all of the tax paid up front on the account, and then all growth in the account in the future is tax free, as with all Roth IRA accounts.
What’s a bit different about this kind of conversion is that, since it came from an inherited account, the beneficiary must immediately begin taking distribution of the account over his or her lifetime, according to the single life table. This means that, in order for this maneuver to be beneficial, the heir should be relatively young, such that there will be time for a lengthy growth period for the account – making the tax-free nature of the Roth account worthwhile.
A downside to this move is that the heir should also be in a position to pay the tax on the conversion from other funds, otherwise the tax pulled from the account (and therefore not converted to Roth) will reduce the funds that can grow tax-free over time.
If the heir has an IRA of his or her own that could be converted, and there are only enough other funds for paying tax to enable the conversion of one account or the other, the IRA should be converted rather than the 401(k). This is because the IRA has a much better chance for long-term growth than the inherited QRP due to the requirement for distribution of the account (as discussed above).
This is yet another reason that an individual might want to leave funds in a 401k plan rather than rolling it over to an IRA – since the heir does not have this Roth conversion option available if the money is in a traditional IRA. This option is only available for an inherited 401k.
Inherited Roth 401k
If the account that you’ve inherited is a Roth 401k, if you leave it in the original Roth 401k account, you’ll need to take RMDs from the account each year, based on your age and the account balance.
You could also rollover the Roth 401k to an inherited Roth IRA (similar to the conversion described previously). This is a tax-free event since the money is coming from an account that has already been treated as Roth with contributions.
As a spouse, you further have the option of rollover of the account to a Roth IRA in your own name (not an inherited Roth IRA). This would eliminate the RMD requirement during your lifetime.