Inherited 401(k)

Written by True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF® | Reviewed by Editorial Team

Updated on January 04, 2023

Inheriting a 401(k) account following the death of its original account owner can be a bit daunting for many people, especially if the new account holder has never actually dealt with an inherited 401(k) before.

Any person who is faced with this type of situation must first know what they can do and what restrictions are involved with this particular investment vehicle.

There are several things to keep in mind when handling such accounts.

How Is a 401(k) Inherited?

A 401(k) can be inherited in the event of the death of the original owner.

The plan will typically assign the new account holder is responsible for investing and distributing the funds that are derived from this particular investment vehicle.

The IRS has set up guidelines on how much money one can withdraw from their 401(k) plan.

It is vital that people consider their ages, delayed retirement benefits, employment status, etc. when making decisions about what to do with their inherited 401(k)s.

The rules and regulations regarding the handling of a 401(k) account will depend on how it is inherited.

Typically, a 401(k) account may be inherited by:

  • the account owner's spouse if they are married
  • someone else duly assigned by the account owner especially if they are single
  • someone else duly assigned by the married account owner aside from the spouse as long as it is supported by a waiver that allows them to name another plan beneficiary

Below are the three factors by which inherited 401(k) accounts will be taxed:

  • relationship to the account owner of the 401(k) plan
  • age when the 401(k) was inherited
  • age of the account owner at the time of death

Inheriting a 401(k) as a Spouse

Here are some of the things a spousal beneficiary under the age of 59 1/2 years old can do when he or she inherits a 401(k) account:

Open an Inherited IRA Account

An inherited IRA account is the most convenient way to deal with an inherited 401(k) account.

This allows the beneficiary greater flexibility regarding their investments, and they can withdraw funds from this IRA account anytime without having to worry about penalties like those that are imposed on early withdrawals of traditional IRAs.

However, the spouse must fully understand that any money they withdraw from an inherited IRA will be included in their income for that tax year.

So it is advisable that they speak to a tax consultant first before withdrawing funds from their new IRA or making other important decisions about their inheritance.

Rollover the Funds to an Existing IRA Account

A spousal beneficiary may choose to roll over the inherited IRA to his or her existing IRA account.

If he or she executes the rollover prior to reaching the age of 59 1/2 years old, any withdrawal will be treated as a regular distribution. This means that it will come with an income tax plus a 10% early withdrawal penalty.

The rollover should ideally be done when the spousal beneficiary reaches the age of 59 1/2 years old or older so that the early withdrawal penalty may be avoided.

If the original account owner has been taking RMDs before they passed away, the spousal beneficiary has the option to continue with the RMDs or delay the RMDs until they reach 70 1/2 years old.

However, if the spousal beneficiary is already 70 1/2 years old or older, the RMDs will be mandatory.

Take Advantage of Required Minimum Distributions

This option will still make the beneficiary liable for income tax for any distributions taken from the account, although the 10% early withdrawal penalty will no longer be triggered.

RMDs will be available immediately if the spouse died at the age of 70 1/2 or older.

But if they died younger than that age, RMDs will only be available once the spousal beneficiary reaches 70 1/2 years old.

Inheriting a 401(k) as a Non-spouse

If the account owner who passed away was not married or was married but opted to name another beneficiary aside from the spouse, there are slightly different options to consider when it comes to deciding what to do with their 401(k) inheritance.

Starting 2020, full payouts have to be done from the inherited 401(k) accounts within 10 years from the death of the original account owner per the SECURE Act.

Non-spouse beneficiaries who are classified as eligible designated beneficiaries such as minors, or chronologically ill, or disabled beneficiaries have the option to stretch out the RMDs for their lifetime.

In a case where the original account owner of the 401(k) plan has not yet reached the age of 70 1/2 years old, distributions can be stretched over the lifetime of the beneficiary or over a five-year period.

The latter option would mean that all funds have to be exhausted at the end of the fifth year. The counting of the five-year period begins at the death of the original account owner.

Depending on the plan, a non-spouse beneficiary also has the option to transfer the funds into an inherited IRA account. RMDs will be based on the life expectancy of the beneficiary if the owner has not started taking RMDs.

If they already did, RMDs will have to be mandatory for the beneficiary.

Final Thoughts

Inheriting a 401(k) account can mean different things for different people.

For the spouse, they will have to decide between taking all of the funds in a lump sum and paying taxes on it, taking required minimum distributions (RMDs), or rolling the funds over into their existing IRA account.

For non-spouse beneficiaries, whether beneficiary by designation or not, RMDs must be considered when deciding what to do with the inherited 401(k) account money.

There are several factors to take into consideration like age, the health status of beneficiaries, exact terms of plan documents when it comes to rollover options versus distribution options that will determine how significantly one's options may vary from another's.

The best thing to do when in doubt is to consult a financial advisor.


Inherited 401(k) FAQs

What is an eligible designated beneficiary?

Eligible designated beneficiaries include: Spouse of the deceased 401(k) owner Minor child of the deceased 401k owner Chronically ill or disabled beneficiaries

What if I am having trouble deciding what to do with my 401(k) inheritance?

Consulting a financial advisor may help you come up with an informed decision based on your own personal situation. A fiduciary will not be biased when coming up with advice for their clients, unlike brokers who are subject to selling products and services with commissions in mind rather than their clients' best interest.

How long can I stretch my RMDs for an inherited 401(k) account?

Theoretically, you can stretch your RMDs over your own lifetime if you are an eligible designated beneficiary. Otherwise, there is a five-year period that starts from the date of passing of the original plan holder/IRA account owner that will apply to all assets held in inherited accounts until exhausted.

What is the purpose of required minimum distributions?

As a way to prevent the accumulation of unnecessary funds in traditional IRA accounts and 401(k) plans, required minimum distributions are meant to limit the amount of time these assets can be left untouched for retirement savings.

Is a 401(k) plan better than other retirement plans?

While the answer to this question doesn't have a straight yes or no response, it all depends on an investor's personal situation. If you are one who intends to retire early because you don't intend to work during your golden years, then investing in a 401(k) may not be for you. The flexibility of being able to take out funds whenever needed makes these plans ideal for those who do not view retirement as an option unless they are financially stable enough to fully quit their job at any given time.

About the Author

True Tamplin, BSc, CEPF®

True Tamplin is a published author, public speaker, CEO of UpDigital, and founder of Finance Strategists.

True is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance (CEPF®), author of The Handy Financial Ratios Guide, a member of the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing, contributes to his financial education site, Finance Strategists, and has spoken to various financial communities such as the CFA Institute, as well as university students like his Alma mater, Biola University, where he received a bachelor of science in business and data analytics.

To learn more about True, visit his personal website, view his author profile on Amazon, or check out his speaker profile on the CFA Institute website.

Find Advisor Near You