MONEY Ask the Expert

Do I Owe Taxes on a Windfall from a Retirement Plan?

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Robert A. Di Ieso, Jr.

Q: I am the beneficiary of a $15,800 death benefit from my dad’s pension plan. I was under the assumption that I would not be taxed on it, but is that the case? I want to make sure I deduct any taxes before I distribute the money to my siblings. —Tanya, White Plains, N.Y.

A: The answer depends on the source of the death benefit. If the payout is in the form of a life insurance policy—what your case sounds like—you won’t owe any taxes on the $15,800.

But the tax consequences would be different if you had inherited a tax-deferred retirement plan, such as a 401(k), says Charlotte, N.C. financial planner Cheryl J. Sherrard. The money in that kind of plan is taxed only when the owner makes a withdrawal. As an heir, you would owe income taxes on any distributions.

When you inherit a retirement account, you have few payout options. You can take the full amount in a lump sum, which could push you into a higher tax bracket if the windfall is significant. If you do that, you can request federal and state tax withholding when you fill out the distribution paperwork. Or you can ask for the full amount and pay the taxes later.

To spread the distributions over several years, you can open what’s called an inherited IRA and then move the retirement plan assets into this new account (assuming the qualified retirement plan allows you to). You generally have to start taking annual distributions no later than Dec. 31 following the year of the original account holder’s death. Since the rules are tricky, talk to a tax professional, advises Sherrard.

In this case you would either be gifting a small amount to your siblings yearly, or the full amount all at once. But keep in mind that as a sole beneficiary you are not required to give any money to them.

And no matter what, don’t rush to share your inheritance until you have the full picture of what your father left behind.

“You may want to wait until any other assets of your father’s have been split among all siblings, and then if you desire to equalize with them, you can do so via that net retirement money,” says Sherrard. “This is a common gotcha when one child inherits a taxable asset and then needs to take taxes into consideration before splitting it up.”

Have a question about your finances? Send it to asktheexpert@moneymail.com.

 

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