The rules governing IRA accounts are maddeningly complex, especially the rules for inherited IRAs. I was working with a client on an issue involving the control of an inherited IRA account when I was reminded of a case that shows just how easy it is to make a mistake that cannot be fixed.
Mrs. Beech was the adult beneficiary of her deceased mother’s traditional IRA. The account was managed by a professional money management firm, Citi Smith Barney. Citi made two distributions to Mrs. Beech from the IRA – one for $2,828, and the second for $35,358. The larger distribution was made on May 23, 2008, and the check was made out to Mrs. Beech.
Mrs. Beech deposited the $35,358 into the inherited IRA with American Funds in June 2008. Mrs. Beech reported both distributions on her 2008 income tax return, and reported the smaller $2,828 amount as the taxable amount of the distribution. Thereafter, the IRS issued Mrs. Beech a notice of deficiency for income taxes due in the amount of $9,212 for the $35,358 distribution, plus penalties in the amount of $1,842. The deficiency and penalties were sustained by the United States Tax Court.
Wait a second! Mrs. Beech deposited the distribution check for $35,358 into a new inherited IRA account well within 60 days from the date the check was issued by Citi. What did she do wrong?
Amounts paid or distributed from a traditional IRA are generally includible in gross income by the recipient payee. The Internal Revenue Code (the “Code”) provides that a distribution is not includible in gross income if the entire amount of the distribution received by an individual is redeposited into a qualified IRA for the benefit of that individual within 60 days of the distribution. This redeposit is known as a “rollover contribution.”
However, rollover treatment is not available to a non-spouse beneficiary in the case of an inherited IRA. Any distribution from an inherited IRA is taxable if the distribution is paid to a non-spouse beneficiary. Under the Code, an IRA is treated as inherited if the individual for whose benefit the account or annuity is maintained acquired that account by reason of the death of another individual who was not his or her spouse.
In Mrs. Beech’s case, the $35,358 was paid from her mother’s IRA to Mrs. Beech as the named beneficiary. She then redeposited the funds into an inherited IRA account. Since the IRA account belonged to Mrs. Beech’s mother, it was deemed to be an inherited IRA for the benefit of Mrs. Beech and, therefore, rollover treatment was not available for the distribution. The entire $35,358 distribution was taxable income to Mrs. Beech!
Mrs. Beech would not have been treated as having received a taxable distribution from an IRA, however, if the funds in the IRA were transferred directly from Citi to American Funds without her ever gaining control or use of the funds. This is commonly known as a “trustee-to-trustee transfer.”
A trustee-to-trustee transfer is the only way for the beneficiary of an inherited IRA to make a nontaxable transfer of funds in the IRA account.
What makes a case like Mrs. Beech’s so difficult is that there is no way in the Code for the mistake to be corrected. Once Citi issued the check, it became taxable income. Neither the tax court nor the Internal Revenue Service could grant Mrs. Beech any relief from the income taxes and penalties incurred for her mistake.
The lesson from Mrs. Beech’s mistake is that in every case where a non-spouse is the beneficiary of an IRA, a transfer should only be made via the trustee-to-trustee method to avoid income taxation of the transferred amount.
The case of Beech v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue can be read here.
IRA rules and regulations are extremely complex and costly mistakes can be easily made. If you need help navigating the IRA rules and regulations, call me, I can help.