Generally speaking, investors have separate retirement and non-retirement accounts. In most cases, the retirement accounts are split between Traditional IRAs (i.e., Rollover, SEP, Simple, 401(k), 403(b), 457, etc.), which are pre-tax dollars, and Roth IRAs, which are after-tax dollars. Non-retirement accounts include trusts, individual accounts and joint accounts.
Upon the owner passing, non-retirement accounts usually receive a step-up in their cost basis, meaning long-term capital gains are wiped out for that person’s heirs. In most circumstances, heirs could rebalance or cash out the portfolio and owe little or no capital gains taxes.
Roth IRAs maintain their tax-free growth and withdrawal nature, but do require annual required minimum distributions (RMDs). Pre-tax IRAs, however, behave differently. While they will maintain their tax-deferred growth advantage, their annual RMDs are 100% taxable as ordinary income. If the beneficiary is in the 25% marginal tax bracket, for example, then a $20,000 Traditional (Beneficiary) IRA distribution will owe $5,000 in federal income taxes. Often these distributions push the beneficiary into a higher tax bracket.
Since non-retirement accounts and Roth IRAs are more tax-friendly for heirs, it may be worth considering the possibility of naming a nonprofit organization, like an alma mater or favorite charity, as the beneficiary of Traditional IRA assets. Instead of heirs paying ordinary income taxes on future distributions, the nonprofit organization will be able to utilize 100% of the assets for their organization’s purposes because they are tax-exempt and won’t owe any taxes on distributions. This is especially attractive for those who are charitably inclined and are trying to determine which asset is best. Other benefits include that your estate will be reduced by the amount of the bequest (possibly reducing or removing any estate taxes owed), and your heirs will receive the most tax-friendly assets.
Each client’s circumstances are different, so we recommend you discuss this with an advisor to see if it makes sense for you and your family.