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IRAs and Blended Families

mountain dew bust a cap by Steve SnodgrassIn today’s society, the historically “traditional” family is becoming less and less commonplace – apparently as many as 50% of all children under age 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner who is not a biological parent of the child.  Often as well, there is a significant age differential between the biological parent and the parent’s partner.  Even if there is little difference in ages, quite often situations arise where estate planning including IRAs can become complicated.

An example would be when the biological parent dies at a relatively early age, leaving an IRA to the surviving (non-biological parent) spouse. There could be a significant amount of time where the surviving spouse needs financial support – all the while the children could be denied access to their (potential) inheritance.  It’s not hard to imagine a scenario where there is an adversarial relationship between the children and the surviving spouse, with concerns arising over the surviving spouse’s management of and use or distribution of the funds in the inherited IRA.

Structuring IRAs for Blended Families

Of course, estate planning requires much more than simply reviewing the IRA components of your collective assets.  It is necessary to review all retirement accounts, life insurance policies, trusts, transfer-on-death accounts (TOD) and property titled as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship – all of the assets that are not normally impacted by testamentary trusts or wills.  These assets will pass directly to the named beneficiaries and/or surviving owners.  In addition, reviewing the tenets of your will and/or testamentary trusts will round out the picture.  By doing such a review, you can tally up all of the assets that are being directed to each heir under current conditions.

Given this starting point, you’ll want to consider how you want to distribute your assets compared with how they are presently set up to be distributed.  Often in such cases, it may be discovered that there is an inequity to the assets initially inherited by the spouse, with the children as secondary, or remainder, beneficiaries.  In a blended family this can cause animosity between the children and the surviving non-biological parent. (Imagine a “death watch” by children with regard to the step-parent.)  Steps can be taken to ensure that the children receive an inheritance separate and apart from the remainder sums that (for example) would be available from an IRA or a retirement plan.

The reason this is necessary is that, if an IRA or other qualified retirement plan is the primary asset in the estate, upon inheritance by the surviving spouse there is no guarantee that the IRA will have any assets remaining at all upon the death of the second spouse – or even if the original secondary beneficiaries will continue to have that status.  Since the surviving spouse has the ability to treat the inherited IRA as his or her own account, he or she can designate other beneficiaries (perhaps his or her own children?), thereby cutting out the original owner’s children.  But it doesn’t have to be that diabolical… it could be that the surviving spouse remarries and decides to use the entirety of the IRA in purchasing a yacht to sail around the world with her new husband.  In either case, your original intent may not be carried out by a simple designation of beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries.

To achieve an appropriate division of assets among the surviving non-biological parent and the children, several options are available.  For example, life insurance policies could be used to provide an equitable inheritance to the children immediately upon your death.  Another option would be to split the IRA into separate IRA accounts, naming each of your intended heirs individually on the separate accounts to ensure that each child (and the surviving spouse) receives whatever you deem to be that individual’s appropriate portion of your estate.

Another item of importance is that if some of your assets are in a qualified retirement plan such as a 401(k), you need to take extra steps – especially if you intend to leave those assets to someone other than your spouse.  Accounts like a 401(k) (e.g., 403(b) or 457 plan) are under the jurisdiction of ERISA and IRAs are not. The ERISA regulations require that if you name someone other than your spouse as the beneficiary of the account, your spouse must waive his or her rights to the plan assets upon your death.  By rolling over those assets to an IRA, you will have much more flexibility in designating beneficiaries of the assets.

It should be noted though, that when rolling over funds from an ERISA-controlled plan to an IRA with a non-spouse beneficiary, your spouse will still have to sign off, waiving rights to the account.

The Point

The point of all this is that, too often the decision of naming beneficiaries of your IRA or other qualified plan is perceived as an “automatic” choice – spouse as the primary, children as the secondary beneficiaries.  In a blended family there are complications to the relationships that you need to address and account for in your plan.  If you don’t pay careful attention to what this really means in terms of actual distribution of assets among your beneficiaries, the result can be something much different from what you hoped for.  This can be especially troublesome in a blended family of the sort described previously.  By making some changes with your IRAs or accounting for asset distribution with life insurance policies (for example), you can ensure that your assets are distributed in the fashion that you’d hoped for.

Note: I have purposely not included discussion of estate taxes in this article in order to maintain simplicity.

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