By Nancy Burner, ESQ.
One of the most misunderstood planning strategies is that retirement funds, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s, traditional individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and Roth IRAs, should not name a trust as designated beneficiary. My clients are often advised by their financial adviser to name individuals and not trusts, even minor or disabled beneficiaries. That could be the most expensive mistake made by a retirement account holder and one I often see. The IRA retirement trust is the answer.
First, clients are concerned about protecting their beneficiaries from claims of creditors: that is, divorcing spouses, judgment creditors and Medicaid if the beneficiary needs long-term care.
While IRA accounts are protected from creditors of the original account holder and surviving spouse, the same is not true for inherited IRAs. The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that when someone other than the spouse inherits an IRA, the account is subject to beneficiary’s creditors. Thus, if parents want to protect their child, they can name a trust as the beneficiary of the account, instead of naming the child directly. Correctly written, the trust can allow the trustee to use the beneficiary’s life expectancy, commonly referred to as a “stretch IRA.”
Under federal tax law, designating an individual as the beneficiary of a retirement account results in tax efficiencies by allowing the beneficiary to take the benefits over their life expectancy based upon the beneficiary’s age at the time of the owner’s death and the use of an IRS actuarial table.
Each year the beneficiary of the IRA must take a minimum distribution from the inherited IRA and must pay income tax on the distribution. The balance of the IRA continues to grow tax deferred, only distributions are taxable. Therefore, a young beneficiary will be able to defer the tax longer (commonly known as “stretch”) and enjoy exponential growth. In the case of a Roth IRA, the account holder has already paid the tax, so the beneficiary can continue to have tax-free growth, not tax deferred, over his or her life expectancy.
In order to use the trust beneficiary’s life expectancy, the trust must meet the following criteria:
The trust must be valid under state law; the trust must be irrevocable by the time of the account holder’s death; the trust beneficiaries must be identifiable within the trust document; the retirement beneficiary custodian, issuer, administrator or trustee must be provided with a copy of the trust document by Oct. 31 of the year after the year of the retirement owner’s death and there must be an agreement to that information in the event it is ever changed; and all the “counted” beneficiaries of the trust are “individuals.”
Typically, trusts that satisfy the above criteria will qualify for the stretch. The trusts are drafted as either a conduit trust or an accumulations trust.
The simplest trust is a conduit trust, which allows the trustee to decide on the amount and timing of any and all distributions from the trust. However, any distributions taken must be paid immediately to the beneficiary — who must be an individual. The trust can be drafted to give the trustee the power to take only minimum distributions or distributions more than the minimum.
The second type of trust is a qualified accumulation trust. This trust permits the trustee to accumulate annual minimum required distributions in the trust after the distributions are received from the inherited retirement benefit and is used for beneficiaries that have existing creditor problems to protect the annual distributions from a creditor’s reach.
If the payment were to be paid to the beneficiary outright, the creditor would be able to take the distribution. This type of trust is also used for a supplemental needs trust for a disabled individual. Since most supplemental needs trusts are intended to protect government benefits, it is imperative that the distributions be permitted to accumulate in the trust.
Under New York law, for example, the beneficiary (other than supplemental needs beneficiary) can be her own trustee with the power to make distributions to herself for an ascertainable standard of health, education, maintenance and support without subjecting the trust to claims of her creditors. In cases where the beneficiary is unable to act as trustee, because of lack of maturity, irresponsibility or disability, someone else can be named as trustee. Importantly, the trustee will be the “gatekeeper” and take minimum distributions and exercise discretion to take even more from the IRA if needed and permitted by the trust terms.
By naming a trustee to decide the amount of distributions to be taken, the account holder can rest assured that the IRA savings won’t be squandered. Beneficiaries that are not financially savvy can create tax problems by taking distributions without considering the income tax consequences. Not only will the distributions be taxable, the distribution may put the beneficiary in a higher tax bracket for all their income.
Retirement funds are often the largest assets in a decedent’s estate and usually given the least amount of consideration. Consideration should be given to naming a retirement trust as the designated beneficiary.
Nancy Burner, Esq. practices elder law and estate planning from her East Setauket office.