Often, tax-qualified retirement accounts such as IRAs make up a significant part of one's estate. Naming beneficiaries of an IRA can be an important part of an estate plan. One option is designating a trust as the IRA beneficiary.
This discussion applies to traditional IRAs, not to Roth IRAs. Special considerations apply to beneficiary designations for Roth IRAs.
Why use a trust?
Here are the most common reasons for designating a trust as an IRA beneficiary:
- Generally, inherited IRAs are not protected from the IRA beneficiary's creditors. However, IRA funds left to a properly drafted trust may offer considerable protection against the creditors of trust beneficiaries.
- When you designate one or more individuals as beneficiary of your IRA, those beneficiaries are generally free to do whatever they want with the inherited IRA funds, after your death. But if you set up a trust for the benefit of your intended beneficiaries and name that trust as beneficiary of your IRA, you can retain some control over the funds after your death. Your intended beneficiaries will receive distributions according to your wishes as spelled out in the trust document.
- Through use of a trust as IRA beneficiary, you may "stretch" IRA payments over the lifetimes of more than one generation of beneficiaries. Payments to IRA trust beneficiaries must comply with distribution rules depending on the type of IRA plan.
What is a trust?
A trust is a legal entity that you can set up and use to hold property for the benefit of one or more individuals (the trust beneficiaries). Every trust has one or more trustees charged with the responsibility of managing the trust property and distributing trust income and/or principal to the trust beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust agreement. If the trust meets certain requirements, the beneficiaries of the trust can be treated as the designated beneficiaries of your IRA for purposes of calculating the distributions that must be taken following your death.
Special rules apply to trusts as IRA beneficiaries
Certain special requirements must be met in order for an underlying beneficiary of a trust to qualify as a designated beneficiary of an IRA. The beneficiaries of a trust can be designated beneficiaries under the IRS distribution rules only if the following four trust requirements are met in a timely manner:
- The trust beneficiaries must be individuals clearly identifiable from the trust document as designated beneficiaries as of September 30 following the year of the IRA owner's death.
- The trust must be valid under state law. A trust that would be valid under state law, except for the fact that the trust lacks a trust "corpus" or principal, will qualify.
- The trust must be irrevocable, or by its terms become irrevocable upon the death of the IRA owner.
- The trust document, all amendments, and the list of trust beneficiaries must be provided to the IRA custodian or plan administrator by October 31 following the year of the IRA owner's death. An exception to this rule arises when the sole trust beneficiary is the IRA owner's surviving spouse who is 10 years younger than the IRA owner, and the IRA owner wants to base lifetime required minimum distributions (RMDs) on joint and survivor life expectancy. In this case, trust documentation should be provided before lifetime RMDs begin.
Withdrawals from tax-deferred retirement plans are taxed as ordinary income and may be subject to a 10% federal income tax penalty if withdrawn by the IRA owner prior to age 59½, with certain exceptions as outlined by the IRS.
Disadvantages of naming a trust as IRA beneficiary
If you name your surviving spouse as the trust beneficiary of your IRA rather than naming your spouse as a direct beneficiary, certain post-death options that would otherwise be available to your spouse may be limited or unavailable. Naming your spouse as primary beneficiary of your IRA provides greater options and maximum flexibility in terms of post-death distribution planning.
Setting up a trust can be expensive, and maintaining it from year to year can be burdensome and complicated. So the cost of establishing the trust and the effort involved in properly administering the trust should be weighed against the perceived advantages of using a trust as an IRA beneficiary. In addition, if the trust is not properly drafted, you may be treated as if you died without a designated beneficiary for your IRA. That would likely shorten the payout period for required post-death distributions.