The Impending Death of the Stretch IRA and Why It May Impact You

What is a “Stretch IRA?”

The “Stretch IRA” refers to sustaining the tax-deferred status of an inherited IRA for as long as possible when the beneficiary is someone other than a spouse. Under current law, a stretch IRA is a way to limit required distributions on an inherited IRA. Instead of naming the spouse as beneficiary, an account holder names children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or even siblings, etc., who can stretch out the withdrawals over their expected lifespan. That ability translates into the possibility that the continued tax deferred status could mean a difference of hundreds of thousands, perhaps, millions of dollars over a beneficiary’s lifetime. 

The New Bill for 2017

In 2016, the Senate Finance Committee voted 26-0 to end the stretch IRA for non-spousal beneficiaries. The Committee saw such curtailment as a way to bolster revenues by $5.5 billion over 10 years. The bill has a retroactive provision to apply to IRAs The proposed bill, the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (“RESA”), requires beneficiaries of an inherited IRA to pay all taxes due on the account within five years of the owner’s death. To lessen the bite a little, the bill contains a $450,000 exclusion for non-spousal beneficiaries, which means a $1 million IRA would be taxed only on $550,000.

Say, you die and leave a $1.45 million IRA to an only child, the child can claim the exclusion and defer taxes on $450,000 over his lifetime. however, the child must withdraw the remaining $1 million within 5 years subjecting the larger portion of his inheritance to accelerated income taxes. If there are multiple accounts, the exclusion must be prorated over each account.


Decedent had $2 million in retirement assets: $1.2 million in a traditional IRA, a $500,000 401(k), and a $300,000 Roth IRA.  So, the proration looks like this:

  • Traditional IRA–$1.2/2 = 60%
  • 401k–$500k/2mm = 25%
  • Roth IRA–$300k/2mm = 15%.

So, the beneficiary gets to stretch $270,000 of the traditional IRA (60% x $450,000); $112,500 of the 401k ($450,000 x 25%); and $67,500 ($450,000 x 15%) of the Roth IRA.

The accelerated tax rules would apply to the remaining $930,000 of the traditional IRA; $387,500 of the 401k; and $232,500 of the Roth IRA. These amounts must all be distributed within 5 years. But, the amounts out of the Roth wouldn’t be subject to tax.

Likelihood of Implementation

Leading experts like Ed Slott are on record that this is going to happen in 2017. While most agree that the bill won’t move along as a stand-alone provision according to Brigen L. Winters, a principal at Groom Law Group in Washington, DC, the RESA “can easily be inserted into any tax bill, especially since Congress is being told that this provision will produce billions in revenue,” says Slott. While Slott maintains that the RESA won’t generate any revenue, to the contrary is more likely to lose revenue, since Trump has promised comprehensive tax reform, odds are good that some type of tax legislation is coming.  Slott’s rationale for the lack of revenue generation is that the majority of beneficiaries won’t stretch the IRA anyway, they’ll “go through them like water…it’s human nature.”

Inherited IRAs Aren’t Exempt Assets Under ERISA

A United States Supreme Court decision in 2014 unanimously ruled that inherited IRAs cannot be considered a retirement fund and thus are not subject to exemptions under bankruptcy laws. So, that means inherited IRAs are open to creditor claims in the event of fortuitous financial problems occurring.

Need for Detailed Planning Analysis

It’s important to note that any unused exclusion cannot be transferred to a surviving spouse. Thus, you can’t just leave everything to your spouse if you have a lot of money in retirement accounts without losing the chance to exclude a portion of the account from accelerated tax. This knowledge should serve as a wake-up call to married people who have a lot of money in retirement accounts. It only makes sense to take advantage of both exclusions, else they will lose the opportunity to take advantage of enormous tax savings.

So long as the family’s combined IRA balance is less than $450,000 and isn’t likely to grow beyond $450,000, no special planning will be needed unless Congress decides to use a different exclusion amount. if the combined balance of the IRAs is greater than the exclusion amount, then strategic planning will be needed to protect families from a harsh new tax structure. One option is to establish enormous flexibility in the estate-planning documents with extremely liberal disclaimers. Perhaps allowing the surviving spouse to disclaim to children and provisions allowing children to disclaim to trusts created for the benefit of their children are low-hanging tactics obviously to be employed. Roth conversions are another powerful strategy to be employed. Discussions on the Roth conversion will be the subject of a different article–stay tuned!