Unfortunately, when it comes to inheritance and IRAs, nothing is straightforward. Even though the inheritance rules are the same regardless of account type (Roth IRA, traditional IRA, SEP IRA, etc), each inheritance case is unique. By the end of this guide, you will understand:

  • The importance of having a will
  • The tax implications of inheritance for spouses and other beneficiaries
  • The different scenarios that can occur in inheritance planning
  • The rights spouses and beneficiaries have in the process
  • Extenuating circumstances that could change the outcome of an inheritance
  • How inheritance works for different types of assets outside of an IRA

This guide will give you a comprehensive overview of the implications of inheritance planning for IRAs while also giving you the tools to better handle your personal inheritance situation. Read on to discover everything there is to know about inheritance and IRAs.

The two biggest factors of inheritance planning


In marriage, two people do not just enter into a love contract; they enter into a legal contract as well. The marriage agreement gives each spouse certain rights when the other spouse passes away, making this critical in the inheritance process. At times, spousal rights can supersede other property rights depending on the situation and the state or locality.

Here are some resources to help you understand the inheritance rights of spouses.


A will is a document that clearly states who will receive your assets after your passing. When a will is present, it makes the inheritance process much more seamless.

With a will, there is no guessing what the deceased wanted after they are gone. Therefore, if you do not already have a will, you should make plans to get one as soon as possible to ensure that your inheritance desires for your IRA and other assets are carried out as you intend.

Here are some resources that will teach you more about wills, their importance, and how to write one.

  • Introduction to Wills -- Provides a comprehensive look at wills, why they are essential, and what they do/do not cover.
  • 10 Steps to Writing a Will -- A guide on how to write a will that will take care of your loved ones after you are gone. It lays out all of the steps on how to successfully complete your will and provides other resources to help you along the way.
  • How to Write a Last Will and Testament -- A step-by-step guide on how to write your will.
  • Understanding Who Should Be Beneficiary of Your IRA -- A valuable tip on how to turn a modest tax-deferred account into millions for your family. This should also be helpful to those who are deciding on who to list as heirs.

The right way to leave an inheritance

The entire purpose of estate planning is to leave your beneficiaries with as much of your wealth as possible. Obviously, you can name beneficiaries as you see fit. You can also take steps to ensure that your estate is set up in a way where those beneficiaries receive the maximum benefit after you pass on. At the same time, it is vital to have clear and open communication with your spouse, children, and other potential beneficiaries, especially if your inheritance is not being left to them all equally.

Tax consequencestax form

Spousal inheritance

Like non-spouses, a deceased account holder’s wife or husband can take ten years to empty their retirement account funds. But spouses retain the option to simply absorb those retirement funds into their IRAs without any added penalties. This is the primary benefit of a spousal inheritance.

Still, the rules that applied to the spouse’s IRA remain with the inherited funds. If you are not yet 59½, you cannot withdraw funds from your IRA without paying an early withdrawal penalty, even if that money came from an inherited IRA. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) work the same as if the account’s wealth came solely from annual contributions and gains inside the account.

Spouses can also take over an inherited account exactly how “stretch” IRAs worked before the SECURE Act was passed. A few other potential beneficiaries can take over an inherited account as well, including:

  • Minor children of the deceased
  • Disabled individuals
  • Chronically ill individuals
  • Individuals not more than 10-years younger than the deceased

These “eligible designated beneficiaries,” as the IRS refers to them, can transfer an inherited account into one in their name. From there, they are required to take RMDs based on their life expectancy. This means more time for the account to grow tax-free.

Non-spousal inheritance

Like spouses, non-spouses can take ten years to withdraw the assets in an inherited retirement account fund. The most significant tax implication for non-spousal inheritance is the recently passed SECURE Act. Signed into law in December 2019, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act was passed to help Americans expand and preserve their retirement savings. As a result, the bill had repercussions for inheritance planning for non-spouses.

Before the SECURE Act passed After the SECURE Act passed
Within five years, beneficiaries have to withdraw the assets from an inherited IRA, taking their first RMD by the end of the year the original owner died. Beneficiaries now have ten years to withdraw an inherited IRA.
A “stretch” account that lets non-spousal beneficiaries turn the inherited account into their own by taking RMDs based on their age. Stretch accounts are virtually eliminated for non-spouses except for a small group of beneficiaries.

Therefore, non-spouses can take up to ten years to withdraw from an inherited IRA without the fear of an early penalty withdrawal or annual withdrawal requirements. In fact, non-spouses can wait until the tenth full year after the original account owner’s passing before emptying the inherited accounts.

Inheritance scenarios

As previously stated, the inheritance process is not standard across the board. There are a variety of factors that determine how an inheritance will play out in any given situation. Here we will look atwill prep a few different scenarios and resources to help you understand the inheritance process.

Scenario 1: Spouse + Will

This scenario tends to be the smoothest transition of inheritance. The presence of a will outlines how the inheritance is to be passed on while spousal privileges still apply. Depending on the state, the living spouse can receive an inheritance that supersedes the will document. The spouse will also need to understand how to handle the execution of the will, which will often require legal counsel.

Scenario 2: No Spouse + Will

In this scenario, all assets will be passed on to beneficiaries left in the will but were not married to the deceased. However, in this case, as well, state law can supersede the will in some instances. You can also learn about what you can do to be a beneficiary of retirement accounts that are not covered by a will.

Scenario 3: Spouse + No Will

If a spouse passes away without leaving a will, there will likely be questions and confusion for those that remain. Some rights are given to spouses legally after marriage and could be the basis for inheritance even without a will. However, some accounts do require a separate list of beneficiaries regardless of marriage.

Scenario 4: No Spouse + No Will

In this last scenario, there is not only no will present at the time of death, but no living spouse remains. Non-spouses who are not covered by a will may still have the right to claim their relatives’ assets depending on their relation to the deceased and the specific scenario. Learn about what happens to assets that do not have beneficiaries and state laws that rule them. The following articles cover different topics relating to this situation.

Special cases

Some inheritance scenarios involve extenuating circumstances. They can be arguments over an estate between spouses and children or cases when a will is found after an estate has been settled. A will that was written at a time when the deceased was considered mentally incapable of making their own decisions can also be a special inheritance case.

The following special cases outline historical decisions made by local and national courts that can serve as a reference if you ever run into a similar issue or think they could potentially be a problem in the future.

  • U.S. Supreme Court Cites Florida Inheritance Law In Unusual Case -- Ruled that children born after a parent’s death are not considered beneficiaries unless stated otherwise. Florida laws made the case more complicated.
  • Negative Inheritance -- The concept of "Negative Inheritance" describes a situation where the costs of taking care of the aging parents outweigh the inheritance they will leave behind for their heirs.
  • The Battle for Control of Aretha Franklin’s Estate Shows No Sign of Ending -- What appeared to be death without a will was suddenly shaken when homemade documents were found in Aretha Franklin's house. Court proceedings may have pivotal outcomes since two of these documents could be considered valid under Michigan law.
  • John Seward Johnson | Disinheritance & Incapacity -- John Seward Johnson, heir to his father's wealth after founding Johnson & Johnson, died at 87, leaving his estate to his third wife, Barbara Piasecka. She was 42 years younger than him. Six of his children from previous marriages asserted that he was mentally incapacitated when he changed his will years before his death.
  • Inside The Pritzker Family Feud -- The wealthy Pritzker clan in Chicago have assets valued at $15 billion divided into different trust funds, mostly overseas. When two young heirs suspected that other family members were looting from the trust, it resulted in a massive estate battle that was settled in 2005.
  • James Brown’s Will: Is It Inching Toward Closure After 14 Years? -- 14 years after the death of James Brown, the battle for his estate is still ongoing. This is due to complicated factors surrounding the heirs and doubt surrounding the validity of his last marriage.
  • Leona Helmsley | The “Queen Of Mean’s” Multibillion Estate -- Leona Helmsley, a billionaire who died at the age of 87, left more money for her dog Trouble than her four grandchildren. She left two children with $10 million each, the other two children with nothing, while the dog was set to inherit $12 million. These numbers dramatically changed after the judge ruled Leona to be mentally unfit when she wrote the will.
  • Luke Perry Protected His Family With Estate Planning -- Despite passing away at 52, Luke Perry set up a trust fund for his children in 2015 after a cancer scare. Legally, he was prepared for this moment since his children did not need court intervention, which would have happened if he passed away with only a will.
  • The John Singleton Estate Teaches Why No One Should Procrastinate Updating Their Will -- John Singleton died in 2019 from a stroke, leaving seven children behind, two of whom are minors and are not his verified biological daughters. His will was last written in 1998, leaving no mention of the children he had after 1998.

Inheritance and other assets

When thinking about inheritance, you likely have additional assets beyond your IRA. Things like your 401(k) plan and precious metals are treated differently during the inheritance process. Here is what you should know about how these assets will be affected by inheritance.

401(k)401k risk

401(k)s are similar to IRAs in their inheritance laws, but with some crucial differences. Legally, any surviving spouse automatically receives any assets from a 401(k), superseding any previous agreement between the account owner and their heirs. The spouse can sign a contract to refuse the money, in which case it would pass to the next of kin.

Here is some more information relating to 401(k) inheritance.

Precious metalsgold and silver

The inheritance of precious metals depends on whether these assets are held within the IRA.  Even if physical gold or other metals are held within an IRA account, their inheritance is treated like any other IRA account.

The inheritance rules differ for physical precious metals (like gold bars, coins, etc.) held outside of a retirement account. Because the IRS considers all precious metals to be collectibles, the tax rate on these inherited assets depends on how long they have been held and how much the market value has increased.

457(b) and 403(b)

Perhaps you are in a unique scenario with your inheritance. If you inherit retirement accounts that are not IRAs or 401(k)s, you may be wondering what to do next. Fortunately, 457(b) and 403(b) accounts are handled similarly to 401(k)s when it comes to inheritance. However, there are some caveats you should be aware of, which are described in the articles below.

Inheritance disputes and reconciliation

Even with the best of intentions, sometimes there is no avoiding inheritance-related disputes. What was left behind in goodwill by the deceased may become a struggle that drives families apart. In these situations, the best response is to de-escalate and settle things peacefully.

Here are some guides you can read to learn more about what to do to reconcile inheritance disputes.


Inheritance planning takes time and energy but is a critical aspect of making sure the people you love are taken care of for years after you pass away. As for beneficiaries, understanding the inheritance process’s ins and outs is crucial to ensuring the deceased has their wishes honored and that you are not taken advantage of during the process. When it comes to inheritance, you can never be too prepared. Use these resources to help guide you along the way to anticipate and resolve any questions or disputes that could arise among your beneficiaries.

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