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The term "stretch IRA" has become a popular way to refer to an IRA (either traditional or Roth) with provisions that make it easier to "stretch out" the time that funds can stay in your IRA after your death, even over several generations. It's not a special IRA, and there's nothing dramatic about this "stretch" language. Any IRA can include stretch provisions, but not all do.
Earnings in an IRA grow tax deferred. Over time, this tax-deferred growth can help you accumulate significant retirement funds. If you're able to support yourself in retirement without the need to tap into your IRA, you may want to continue this tax-deferred growth for as long as possible. In fact, you may want your heirs to benefit — to the greatest extent possible — from this tax-deferred growth as well. But funds can't stay in your IRA forever. Required minimum distribution (RMD) rules will apply after your death (for traditional IRAs, minimum distributions are also required during your lifetime after you reach age 70½). The goal of a stretch IRA is to make sure your beneficiary can take distributions over the maximum period the RMD rules allow. You'll want to check your IRA custodial or trust agreement carefully to make sure that it contains the following important stretch provisions.
The RMD rules let your beneficiary take distributions from an inherited IRA over a fixed period of time, based on his or her life expectancy. For example, if your beneficiary is age 20 in the year following your death, he or she can take payments over 63 additional years (special rules apply to spousal beneficiaries).
As you can see, this rule can keep your IRA funds growing tax deferred for a very long time. But even though the RMD rules allow your beneficiary to "stretch out" payments over his or her life expectancy, your particular IRA may not. For example, your IRA might require your beneficiary to take a lump-sum payment, or receive payments within five years after your death. Make sure your IRA contract lets your beneficiary take payments over his or her life expectancy.
But what happens if your beneficiary elects to take distributions over his or her life expectancy and then dies a few years later, with funds still in the inherited IRA?
This is where the IRA language becomes crucial. If, as is commonly the case, the IRA language doesn't address what happens when your beneficiary dies, then the IRA balance is typically paid to your beneficiary's estate. However, IRA providers are increasingly allowing an original beneficiary to name a successor beneficiary. In this case, if your original beneficiary dies, the successor beneficiary "steps into the shoes" of your original beneficiary and can continue to take RMDs over the original beneficiary's remaining distribution schedule.
You can always transfer your funds to an IRA that contains the desired stretch language. In addition, upon your death, your beneficiary can transfer the IRA funds (in your name) directly to another IRA that has the appropriate language.
And if your spouse is your beneficiary, he or she can roll over the IRA assets to his or her own IRA, or elect to treat your IRA as his or her own (if your spouse is your sole beneficiary). Because your spouse becomes the owner of your IRA funds, rather than a beneficiary, your spouse won't have to start taking distributions until he or she reaches age 70½. And your spouse can name a new beneficiary to continue receiving payments after his or her death.