Naming a child as the beneficiary to important assets like your IRA may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, doing that can create several problems.
I once worked with a client who left his IRA to his daughter. When he put her on his beneficiary form, he was fairly young and healthy, so he had little concern about his decision.
When he passed away, however, his daughter was only five years old — a minor unable to inherit the account. The father had the intention of leaving his daughter roughly $40,000 to help fund an important expense or investment. Instead, a judge had to step in and appoint a custodian to manage the asset until the child reached legal age. Even though the child will eventually receive these funds, without any specific guidelines set, the young daughter could potentially make a poor investment decision much different from what her father had envisioned.
I see this problem often with single parents who, because they don't have a spouse who might receive their assets, make their children their direct heirs. While these clients have the best intentions, I have come to realize that they often don’t understand the consequences of their actions: The courts may delay, interfere or misinterpret their true intentions if a beneficiary is a minor.
The first option I offer to those looking to leave assets to a minor is through a Uniform Transfers to Minors Act account. An UTMA account gives the owner — often the parent, though it could be a grandparent or someone else — control over selecting the custodian should the owner pass away before the child reaches the age of majority. Had my client done this, he could have avoided the involvement of the court-appointed custodian. This option, though, may not always be the best solution, since it fails to give the parent control of how the funds will be distributed.
The second option I offer to parents is to name a trust as a beneficiary. This option provides the most control of how the funds are managed and distributed – an option many parents find appealing because it could prevent the child from making a poor investment, incurring a major tax liability, or quickly running through the money.
A trust can also allow or even require distributions to be stretched over the beneficiary’s lifetime, maximizing the tax-deferred or tax-free growth for the greatest duration and overall lifetime payout for the heirs.
Using separate trusts for each child can allow each heir to use his or her own age for calculating required minimum distributions. That can make a significant difference if there is a large age variance between them. For example, let's say a grandmother passes away and leaves her IRA to two children, ages 53 and 48, and two grandchildren, ages 12 and 2. If she has created a trust for each heir, then they can each use their own age from the IRS's life expectancy table to calculate their required minimum distributions. If she has failed to do this, they will all be forced to calculate RMDs based on the oldest heir, age 53 – greatly shortening the stretch period of the tax benefits for the young children.
For parents with more than one child who do not want to incur the legal costs of setting up a trust but want to maximize the stretch benefits of their retirement accounts have another option: splitting the IRA into multiple IRA accounts, creating one to be left to each heir. This will not provide the control over the custodian or distribution, but will allow each heir to use his or her own age in calculating the RMDs of an inherited account.
As advisers, it's our job not only to help our clients prepare for retirement, but also to make sure their money is taken care of after they die. By helping them properly plan for their beneficiaries, advisers can do just that.
Herb White, CFP, is the founder and president of Life Certain Wealth Strategies, an independent financial and retirement planning firm in Greenwood Village, Colo., dedicated to helping individuals achieve their financial goals for retirement. A certified financial planner with more than 15 years of experience in the financial services industry, White is also life and health insurance licensed. He is a member of the Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Insurance and Financial Advisors.