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Taxes on Inherited Accounts

Inheriting assets can be a bittersweet experience. While it often signifies the passing of a loved one, it can also provide financial stability and opportunities for the future. However, along with the emotional and financial aspects of inheritance come tax implications, especially regarding inherited accounts. Understanding how taxes apply to inherited accounts is crucial for effective estate planning and financial management. In this article, we’ll explore the complexities of taxes on inherited accounts and explore strategies to navigate them. 


It’s important to know that taxes on inherited accounts is an extremely complex topic. This topic was made even more confusing by the 2019 SECURE Act and 2022’s SECURE Act 2.0. To put it simply, the SECURE Act focuses on a few key areas to improve retirement plans. 

  • Expanded Access: Requires employers to allow long-term part-time employees who work at least 500 hours per year for three consecutive years to participate in their employer’s 401(k) plan. 
  • Increased RMD Age: The age at which individuals must start taking required minimum distributions (RMDs) from their retirement accounts was raised from 70½ to 72. It was raised to 73 in 2023. This change allows individuals to keep their retirement funds invested for a longer period, potentially increasing their savings. 
  • Birth or Adoption Expenses: Allows penalty-free withdrawals of up to $5,000 from retirement accounts for expenses related to the birth or adoption of a child. While the withdrawal is penalty-free, income tax still applies to the distribution. 
  • Elimination of “Stretch” IRAs: Eliminates the “stretch” IRA provision for most non-spouse beneficiaries. Previously, non-spouse beneficiaries could stretch distributions from inherited IRAs over their lifetimes, allowing for potentially significant tax-deferred growth. Now, most non-spouse beneficiaries are required to withdraw the entire inherited IRA balance within 10 years of the original account holder’s death, potentially accelerating tax liabilities. 

Knowing these provisions is key to understanding taxes on inherited accounts. The way a surviving spouse is taxed is different from the way a child or relative is taxed. Similarly, non-relatives are taxed differently. Knowing what your options are if you inherit an account can save you time, money, and a headache.  

Types of Inherited Accounts 

Keeping the SECURE Act in mind, we can now look at the different types of inherited accounts. Inherited accounts come in various forms, including retirement accounts like Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), employer-sponsored retirement plans such as 401(k)s, taxable investment accounts, and other financial assets. Each type of account may have different tax implications for beneficiaries. In most scenarios, you may inherit IRAs, employee-sponsored retirement plans, and investment accounts. 

Traditional and Roth IRAs 

Perhaps the most important factor that determines options when inheriting accounts is your relationship to the deceased. When inheriting a traditional IRA, beneficiaries typically must pay income tax on distributions they receive. The tax is based on the beneficiary’s individual tax rate. However, if the deceased had already begun taking required minimum distributions (RMDs), the beneficiary may need to continue taking them based on their life expectancy. 

In contrast, inheriting a Roth IRA usually offers tax advantages. Qualified distributions from a Roth IRA are tax-free, so beneficiaries can potentially enjoy tax-free growth on inherited assets. However, non-qualified distributions may be subject to taxes and penalties. For example, if the Roth account is less than 5 years old at the time of withdrawal, the withdrawal may be subject to income tax. 

Non-Spouse Beneficiaries 

If you inherited an account from a parent, relative, or anything other than a spouse, your options are more limited. For example, you cannot roll inherited IRA funds into an IRA in your name. Also, if you plan to take RMDs using the life expectancy method, you must meet one of the following requirements: 

  • You inherited the funds from someone who died in 2019 or earlier 
  • You are chronically ill or disabled 
  • You are more than 10 years younger than the deceased account owner 
  • You are a minor child of the deceased account owner. If this is the case, you must use the life expectancy method until you reach age 18. 

If you don’t meet any of these criteria, you can spread the withdrawals over a 10-year period. Alternatively, you can withdraw over 5 years or take a lump sum withdrawal. 

Employer-Sponsored Retirement Plans 

Similar to traditional IRAs, beneficiaries of employer-sponsored retirement plans like 401(k)s may need to pay income tax on distributions they receive. You could take a lump sum distribution, but it will be taxed as ordinary income. You could also roll the funds into your own 401(k) or IRA. If you do this, you’ll follow the same withdrawal rules. For instance, you be penalized for early withdrawals, and you must start taking RMDs by age 73. If you choose to transfer the funds into an inherited IRA account, you can make early withdrawals. On the other hand, you don’t need to move the funds at all. You can leave it in the account and take RMDs when required. However, if you are over 59½ and your spouse began taking RMDs before they passed, you can continue those withdrawals or delay it until you reach age 73 without any penalty. 

Non-Spouse Beneficiaries 

Once again, non-spouse beneficiaries have less options than spouses. You have three options for this type of account. 

  1. Transfer funds into an inherited IRA: This option requires the funds to be completely withdrawn within 10 years. If the money was pre-tax, you’ll pay tax on the withdrawals. If you convert a pre-tax 401(k) into a Roth IRA, you’ll likely owe taxes at the time of conversion. Withdrawing from a Roth 401(k) or converting the account to a Roth IRA has no tax implications. 
  1. Take a lump sum payment: This option generally results in a large tax bill. If you inherit a pre-tax 401(k), you’ll pay at your ordinary tax rate. If it’s a Roth 401(k), there are no tax implications. 
  1. Leave the funds and withdraw over 10 years: You can leave the funds in the original account, but you still need to meet the 401(k) 10-year rule. 

Inherited Stock 

Inheriting taxable investment accounts generally involves capital gains taxes. When beneficiaries sell inherited assets, they may incur capital gains tax based on the difference between the asset’s value at the time of inheritance and its value at the time of sale. However, inheriting assets also offers a “step-up” in basis, which can reduce capital gains taxes by resetting the cost basis to the asset’s value at the time of the original owner’s death.  

Here’s an example. Let’s assume you sell inherited stocks one year after inheriting them. The stocks were worth $100,000 when you inherited them, and you sold them for $120,000.  

Capital Gain = Sale Price – Fair Market Value at Inheritance 

Capital Gain = $120,000 – $100,000 = $20,000 

If your capital gains rate is 15%, you’d owe $3,000 in capital gains tax.  

Capital Gains Tax = Capital Gain × Capital Gains Tax Rate 

Capital Gains Tax = $20,000 × 0.15 = $3,000 

Tax Help for Those Who Inherited Accounts 

Inheriting accounts comes with both financial opportunities and tax obligations. Understanding the tax implications of inherited assets is crucial for maximizing their value and minimizing tax liabilities. By implementing strategic tax planning strategies and seeking professional guidance, beneficiaries can navigate the complexities of taxes on inherited accounts effectively. Optima Tax Relief has a team of dedicated and experienced tax professionals with proven track records of success.    

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