Unlike most of your assets, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) do not pass to your family through a will. Instead, upon your death, your IRA will pass directly to the people you named via your IRA beneficiary designation form.
Unless you take extra steps, the named beneficiary can do whatever he or she wants with the account’s funds once you’re gone. The beneficiary could cash out some or all of the IRA and spend it, invest the funds in other securities, or leave the money in the IRA for as long as possible.
For a number of reasons that we’ll address more below, you might not want your heirs to receive your retirement savings all at once. One way to prevent this is to designate your IRA into a trust.
But you can’t just use any trust to hold an IRA; you’ll need to set up a special type of revocable trust specifically designed to act as the beneficiary of your IRA upon your death. Such a trust is referred to by different names—IRA Living Trust, IRA Inheritor's Trust, IRA Stretch Trust—but for this article, we’re simply going to call it an IRA Trust.
IRA Trusts offer a number of valuable benefits to both you and your beneficiaries. If you have significant assets invested through one or more IRA accounts, you might want to consider the following advantages of adding an IRA Trust to your estate plan.
1. Protection from creditors, lawsuits, & divorce
While IRAs are typically protected from creditors while you’re alive, once you die and the funds pass to your beneficiaries, the IRA can lose its protected status when your beneficiary distributes the funds to him or herself. One way to counteract this is to leave your retirement assets through an IRA Trust, in which case your IRA funds will be shielded from creditors as long as they remain in the trust.
IRA Trusts are also useful if you’re in a second (or more) marriage and want your IRA assets to be used for the benefit of your surviving spouse while he or she is living, and then to distributed or be held for the benefit of your children from a prior marriage after your surviving spouse passes. This would ensure that your surviving spouse cannot divert retirement assets to a new spouse, to his or her children from a prior marriage, or lose them to a creditor before the funds ultimately get to your children.
2. Protection from the beneficiary’s own bad decisions
In addition to outside creditors, an IRA Trust can also help protect the beneficiary from his or her own poor money-management skills and spending habits. If the IRA passes to your beneficiary directly, there’s nothing stopping him or her from quickly blowing through the wealth you’ve worked your whole life to build.
When you create an IRA Trust, however, you can add restrictions to the trust’s terms that control when the money is distributed as well as how it is to be spent. For example, you might stipulate that the beneficiary can only access the funds at a certain age or upon the completion of college. Or you might stipulate that the assets can only be used for healthcare needs or a home purchase. With our support, you can get as creative as you want with the trust’s terms.
3. Tax savings
One of the primary benefits of traditional IRAs is that they offer a period of tax-deferred growth, or tax-free growth in the case of a Roth IRA. Yet if the IRA passes directly to your beneficiary at your death and is immediately cashed out, the beneficiary can lose out on potentially massive tax savings.
Not only will the beneficiary have to pay taxes on the total amount of the IRA in the year it was withdrawn, but he or she will also lose the ability to “stretch out” the required minimum distributions (RMDs) over their life expectancy.
A properly drafted IRA Trust can ensure the IRA funds are not all withdrawn at once and the RMDs are stretched out over the beneficiary’s lifetime. Depending on the age of the beneficiary, this gives the IRA years—potentially even decades—of additional tax-deferred or tax-free growth.
If you want to name a minor child as the beneficiary of your IRA, they can’t inherit the account until they reach the age of majority. So without a trust, you’ll have to name a guardian or conservator to manage the IRA until the child comes of age.
When the beneficiary reaches the age of majority, he or she can withdraw all of the IRA funds at once—and as we’ve seen, this can have serious disadvantages. With an IRA Trust, however, you name a trustee to handle the IRA management until the child comes of age. At that point, the IRA Trust’s terms can stipulate how and when the funds are distributed. Or the terms can even ensure the funds are held for the lifetime of your beneficiary, to be invested by your beneficiary through the trust.
Find out if an IRA Trust is right for you
While IRA Trusts can have major benefits, they’re not the best option for everyone. Laws regarding IRA Trusts vary widely from state to state, so in some places, they’ll be more effective than others. Plus, the value of IRA Trusts also varies greatly depending on your specific family situation, so not everyone will want to put these trusts in place.
If you have more than $150,000 in retirement accounts, consult with a Personal Family Lawyer® to find out if an IRA Trust is the most suitable option for passing on your retirement savings to benefit your family.