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Blog Articles: Protecting IRAs and 401(k) When a Spouse Dies

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The rise in the stock market over the past several years, teamed with the passage of the SECURE Act two years ago and the scheduled 50% reduction in the size of the federal estate tax exemption four years from now, has resulted in a renewed interest in estate planning for IRA and 401k accounts owned by married couples.

For married couples who own large IRA and 401(k) accounts, the question is often how to best protect those funds. Protecting IRAs and 401(k) when a spouse dies may involve the couple considering whether or not to pay all or a portion of their accounts to a bypass trust to benefit the surviving spouse. This takes the designated portion of the IRA or 401(k) proceeds out of the surviving spouse’s taxable estate and helps with asset distribution, according to the article “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s” from Financial Advisor. Rudy Beck of Beck & Lenox Estate Planning & Elder Law, LLC, states this is a very appropriate option to consider.

In 2013, the portability election became law. Portability allows the surviving spouse to use the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby capturing not one but two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust?

This election does not remove appreciation in the value of the assets moved from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation. An estate planning attorney will review your entire situation to determine the optimal path for you.

When protecting IRAs and 401(k) when a spouse dies, a consideration needs to be given to what works best if the surviving spouse remarries.  There are situations when the portability election does not apply. One is if the surviving spouse remarries and then the new spouse predeceases them. With a bypass trust, remarriage does not matter (although estate planning documents do need to be updated).

The portability election also does not apply for federal generation-skipping transfer tax purposes. In other words, the amount that could have passed to an estate and generation-skipping transfer tax-exempt bypass trust, including appreciated value, could now be subject to federal transfer tax in the heir’s estate.

And if you use this election, those assets are subject to potential lawsuits against the surviving spouse and, if remarriage occurs, to any potential claims of a new spouse. A bypass trust provides better protection from lawsuits and claims.

Using the portability election may result in the first spouse to die losing the option to control where those assets go upon the death of the surviving spouse. A bypass trust provides more control for asset distribution.

The calculations for each situation must be considered, but the bypass trust can help reduce the taxable estate for children, after the surviving spouse has passed. It may also make sense for a portion of the IRA or 401(k) plan proceeds to go to the bypass trust and another portion to the surviving spouse outright. The use of the beneficiary designation may allow for a full or partial disclaimer by the surviving spouse. However, the bypass trust could provide more flexibility than keeping assets in the original accounts.

As you can see, protecting IRAs and 401(k) when a spouse dies can benefit the entire family. Beck & Lenox encourages you to check with your estate planning attorney to see if the bypass trust might be right for your situation.

Here is some general information about trusts you may want to review: https://beckelderlaw.com/estate-planning/revocable-and-irrevocable-living-trusts/

Reference: Financial Advisor (Jan. 7, 2022) “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s”

 

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