Spousal Rollover IRA

an older woman reading documents pertaining to her deceased spouse's IRA.

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Losing a spouse is a devastating event, and adjusting to an altered life while dealing with all the financial decisions can be overwhelming. If your spouse had an IRA, one of the financial decisions you'll have to make is deciding how you want to treat it when you inherit it. If you inherited an individual retirement account (IRA) from someone other than a spouse, a different set of rules would apply. 

Key Takeaways

  • If you inherit an IRA from a deceased spouse, you have three options for how you can receive it.
  • Cashing it in could bring taxes at your current income tax rate, but you won't have to pay a penalty.
  • Transferring the IRA into your own IRA account effectively resets the clock and allows you to delay taking minimum distributions until the required age.
  • If you're the beneficiary on their account, you may be able to take early distributions with no penalty or defer them until your spouse would have reached maximum retirement age.

If You Inherited a Traditional IRA From Your Spouse

There are two primary types of IRAs you can inherit—a traditional IRA or a Roth IRA. If you inherit a traditional IRA from your spouse, you have three primary choices:

  1. Cashing the account in
  2. Transferring it to your account
  3. Being a beneficiary

The Internal Revenue Service has specific rules for each situation. Also, the rules for Roth IRAs are different from traditional IRAs.

You Can Cash It In 

You'll pay income taxes on the amount withdrawn when you cash in the IRA, but no penalty taxes will apply regardless of your age. This option is a good thing because normally, IRA distributions before age 59½ are subject to a 10% early IRA withdrawal penalty tax.

But even taking penalty taxes off the table, cashing in the IRA might not be your best choice. You have to consider your tax bracket. Cashing in a large IRA could mean that anywhere from 24% to 37% of it goes straight to federal taxes. State income taxes will apply, too. You may be better off withdrawing money as you need it instead of cashing in the entire inherited IRA all at once. 

You Can Treat the IRA as Your Own 

You can treat the IRA as your own by naming yourself as the account owner or by rolling the inherited IRA into your own IRA account. This method can often be your best choice if you're over age 59½ or your spouse was older than you. If you plan to roll the account, be sure to let the processor of the inherited account know the exact name of the account where you are sending the money. If you touch the check, even if just to deposit it, you may face tax penalties.

Rolling the funds allow you to delay taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) as long as possible. If you choose to treat the IRA as yours, your future RMDs will be determined based on your age, beginning with the year you become the owner.

Here's an example: Your spouse was 74. You are age 67. Your spouse started taking their RMDs at age 72. You elect to treat the inherited IRA as your own. You don't have to take annual RMDs until you reach age 72 even though your spouse was doing so. The clock effectively resets.

The advantage in this is continued tax deferral. Keep in mind that if you are over age 59½, you can still make withdrawals if you need the money, and no penalty tax will apply. You're just not required to do so until you reach age 72.

However, here's a word of warning: If you're not yet 59½ and you choose to treat the IRA as your own, your distributions will be subject to a 10% penalty tax. 

You Can Treat Yourself as the Beneficiary 

This option can be your best choice if you're under the age of 59½ or you're older than your spouse. When you set the account up so you're considered the beneficiary of the inherited IRA, your required minimum distributions are determined by your spouse's age at the time of their death. This dating can present two possibilities for you to navigate. If your spouse died after their RMDs began—because they were over age 72—you must take distributions based on the longer of:

  • Your deceased spouse’s life expectancy based on his previous RMD schedule 
  • Your own single life expectancy

If your spouse died before their RMDs began, you can defer distributions until their RMDs would have started and take distributions then over your single life expectancy.

The advantage of this choice is that you can take withdrawals if necessary and no penalty tax will apply if you're not yet 59½. And if you're older than your spouse, you can defer the RMDs until your spouse would have been required to take them, which will be a later date than your own age 72.

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The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Internal Revenue Service. "What if I Withdraw Money From My IRA?"

  2. Internal Revenue Service. "IRS Provides Tax Inflation Adjustments for Tax Year 2021."

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Retirement Plan and IRA Required Minimum Distributions FAQs."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Required Minimum Distributions for IRA Beneficiaries."

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