The tax code allows IRAs to be created as trust accounts, custodial accounts, and annuity contracts. Regardless of the form, the federal tax rules are generally the same for all IRAs. But the structure of the IRA agreement can have a significant impact on how your IRA is administered. This article will focus on a type of trust account commonly called a “trusteed IRA,” or an “individual retirement trust.”
Why might you need a trusteed IRA?
In a typical IRA, your beneficiary takes control of the IRA assets upon your death. There’s nothing to stop your beneficiary from withdrawing all or part of the IRA funds at any time. This ability to withdraw assets at will may be troublesome to you for several reasons. For example, you may simply be concerned that your beneficiary will squander the IRA funds.
Or it may be your wish that your IRA “stretch” after your death–that is, continue to accumulate on a tax-deferred (or in the case of Roth IRAs, potentially tax-free) basis–for as long as possible. IRA owners sometimes select much younger IRA beneficiaries because their young age means a longer life expectancy, and this in turn requires smaller required minimum distributions (RMDs) from the IRA each year after your death–allowing more of your IRA to continue to grow on a tax-favored basis for a longer period of time. Your intent to stretch out the IRA payments may be defeated if your beneficiary has total control over the IRA assets upon your death.
Even if your beneficiary doesn’t deplete the IRA assets, in a typical IRA you normally have no say about where the funds go when your beneficiary dies. Your beneficiary, or the IRA agreement, usually specifies who gets the funds at that point. And in a typical IRA, particularly a custodial IRA, your beneficiary is responsible for investing the IRA assets after your death, regardless of his or her inclination, skill, or experience.
A trusteed IRA can help solve all of these problems. With a trusteed IRA, you can’t stop the payment of RMDs to your beneficiary but you can restrict any additional payments from this IRA. For example, you could maximize the period your IRA will stretch by directing the trustee to pay only RMDs to your beneficiary. Or you can ensure that your beneficiary’s needs are taken care of by providing the trustee with the discretion to make payments to your beneficiary in addition to RMDs as needed for your beneficiary’s health, welfare, or education.
Another option is to impose restrictions on distributions only until you’re comfortable your beneficiary has reached an age where he or she will be mature enough to handle the IRA assets.
In each case, the balance of the IRA (if any) passing, upon your beneficiary’s death, can be paid to a contingent beneficiary of your choosing (the contingent beneficiary will continue to receive RMDs based on your primary beneficiary’s remaining life expectancy). For example, if you’ve remarried, you may want to be sure your current spouse is provided for upon your death, but also that any IRA funds remaining on your spouse’s death pass to the children of your first marriage. Or you may want to ensure that if your spouse remarries, his or her new spouse won’t be the ultimate recipient of your IRA assets.
A trusteed IRA can also be structured to qualify, for example, as a marital, QTIP, or credit shelter (bypass) trust, potentially simplifying your estate planning.
Finally, a trusteed IRA can even be a valuable tool during your lifetime. For example, the IRA can provide that if you become incapacitated the trustee will step in and take over (or continue) the investment of assets, and distribute benefits on your behalf as needed or required, ensuring that your IRA won’t be in limbo until a guardian is appointed.
How do you establish a trusteed IRA?
First, you’ll need to find a trustee that offers IRA planning services. Not all do, and the ones that do don’t all provide the same amount of flexibility. So you may need to shop around to find a trustee that can meet your particular needs. As with a typical IRA, you’ll name the beneficiary of the IRA. You and your attorney will work with the trustee to draft a beneficiary designation form and trust agreement that contain any custom language that you need.
Is a trusteed IRA right for you?
While trusteed IRAs can be as flexible as a particular trustee will allow, they’re not right for everyone. The minimum balance required to establish a trusteed IRA, and the fees charged, are usually significantly higher than for typical custodial IRAs, making trusteed IRAs most appropriate for large IRA accounts. You may also incur significant attorney fees and other costs. And in some cases, another approach might be more appropriate. For example, you may be able to achieve the same results as a trusteed IRA by instead naming a trust as the beneficiary of your IRA.
The “see-through” trust
Unlike a trusteed IRA, where the trust is the IRA funding vehicle and you select the beneficiary of the IRA, with a see-through trust you name the trust itself as the IRA beneficiary, and you also select the beneficiary of the trust.
Normally, when you name an IRA beneficiary that isn’t an individual (i.e., a trust, charity, or your estate), that beneficiary must receive the entire balance of your IRA within five years after your death. However, special rules apply to trusts. If specific IRS rules are followed, then the trust beneficiary, and not the trust itself, will be deemed the beneficiary of the IRA, allowing RMDs to be calculated using the trust beneficiary’s life expectancy and avoiding the five-year payout rule. Because the IRS looks beyond the trust to find the IRA beneficiary, this is commonly referred to as a “see-through trust.”
To qualify as a see-through trust, the following four requirements must be met in a timely manner:
- The trust beneficiaries must be individuals clearly identifiable (from the trust document) as designated beneficiaries as of September 30 following the year of your death.
- The trust must be valid under state law. A trust that would be valid under state law, except for the fact that the trust lacks a trust “corpus” or principal, will qualify.
- The trust must be irrevocable, or (by its terms) become irrevocable upon the death of the IRA owner or plan participant.
- The trust document, all amendments, and the list of trust beneficiaries (including contingent and remainder beneficiaries) must generally be provided to the IRA custodian or plan administrator by the October 31 following the year of your death.
If you have multiple trust beneficiaries, then the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary will be used to calculate RMDs. IRS regulations provide that trust beneficiaries can’t use the “separate account” rule that might otherwise allow each IRA beneficiary to use his or her own life expectancy. If you want each beneficiary to be able to use his or her own life expectancy to calculate RMDs, then you’ll generally need to establish separate trusts for each beneficiary to accomplish that goal.
Generally, see-through trusts are structured as “conduit trusts,” where all distributions received by the trustee from the IRA must be passed on to your beneficiary. While an accumulation trust (where the trustee can accumulate distributions, even RMDs, received from the IRA instead of paying them out) might also qualify as a see-through trust, the IRS’s rules governing these trusts are not as clear.
Trusteed IRA or see-through trust?
Trusteed IRAs are generally less expensive, less complicated, and have less uncertainty than see-through trusts. However, it’s important that you make your decision with an eye toward your total estate plan. You should consult an estate planning professional who can explain your options and make sure you choose the right vehicle for your particular situation.
And a word about spouses …
In most cases, if your primary goal is that your IRA stretch for the longest period of time, this can be best accomplished by simply naming your spouse as the sole IRA beneficiary, with no withdrawal restrictions. Upon your death your spouse can roll the IRA assets over to his or her own IRA, or simply treat your IRA as his or her own. Your spouse can then name a beneficiary who’ll receive RMDs over the beneficiary’s life expectancy upon your spouse’s death. But while this may provide the longest potential RMD payout period, it doesn’t solve the problem of your spouse using the funds sooner than you’d like, or naming a contingent beneficiary that’s unacceptable to you. With a trusteed IRA, even if your spouse is the sole beneficiary, your spouse can’t treat the IRA as his or her own if his or her withdrawal rights are limited.