Inherited 401(k) Plans

This is the story of George, Mike and Tom. Each cousin is the non-spouse beneficiary of his father’s 401(k) plan. Their fathers worked together at the local automotive factory for their entire lives and were all covered by the same plan. The default distribution option in the plan for non-spouse beneficiaries is a five-year payout.

 

George’s Story

 

George’s father named George on the beneficiary form for the 401(k) plan after his wife died. When George’s father died, George knew he wanted to stretch distributions from the inherited plan funds. He did some research and talked to the plan’s representative. George received good advice. He did a direct transfer from the plan to an inherited IRA. In the year after his father’s death, George took his first required minimum distribution (RMD) from the inherited funds.

George met the tax code requirements and was able to use the stretch payout option in his inherited IRA. 1) He was named on the beneficiary form, 2) he moved the funds in a direct transfer to a properly titled inherited IRA by December 31st of the year after his father’s death, and 3) he took his first RMD in the year after his father’s death.

 

Mike’s Story

 

Mike’s father also named him on the beneficiary form for the 401(k) plan after his wife died. But after his father’s death, Mike did nothing about the inherited 401(k) plan funds. He just let them sit in the 401(k) plan. Then one day, about five years after his father died, he got a letter from the plan. It said that Mike had to take all the funds out of the 401(k) plan before year end. If the plan did not hear from him, they were going to issue a check payable to Mike on December 15th.

 

At this point, Mike considered doing a direct transfer of the inherited plan funds to an inherited IRA but it was too late. Mike did not meet the deadline of December 31st of the year after his father’s death and he did not timely take his first RMD. Mike couldn’t move any of the funds to an inherited IRA now because of the five-year payout rule in the plan. Since he was in the fifth year after his father’s death, the entire plan balance was his RMD for the year and an RMD cannot be rolled over.

 

Tom’s Story

 

Tom’s father never paid much attention to details. One detail that he neglected was his beneficiary form. He never filled one out. Since Tom’s parents were divorced, there was no named beneficiary for the plan so it defaulted to his father’s estate. Tom was the sole beneficiary of the estate so he ended up inheriting the 401(k) assets.

 

Tom also wanted to stretch distributions from the inherited plan funds. Unfortunately, Tom does not have this option. Since he inherited the plan funds through his father’s estate, the tax code does not allow Tom to do a direct rollover to a properly titled inherited IRA. Tom is required to leave the funds in the plan and to take distributions according to the plan rules. That means that Tom will have to take the entire 401(k) balances out by the end of five years. The distributions will be taxable to Tom as he takes them. He can spread them over the five years or wait and take out the entire balance in the fifth year.

 

The moral of these stories is that the beneficiary form is the key to a good outcome. Make sure they are up to date for all accounts with a beneficiary form, such as IRAs, employer plans, insurance policies and annuities. It is also important for beneficiaries to know what the rules are for distributions after the account owner’s death. A mistake can mean the end of the inherited account and income tax on the account balance.

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