People often leave assets to minors, but is making a minor an IRA beneficiary a good idea? After all, there are many ways to give assets to those for whom you wish to leave a legacy. You can leave tangible assets, such as cars, houses, or other belongings, or liquid assets, such as cash or securities.

However, the age of the person to whom you leave these assets will often determine the form of and the conditions under which they receive the property. Here are some of the advantages and potential pitfalls of leaving an IRA to a minor.

Key Takeaways

  • IRAs provide better opportunities for long-term growth than other assets you could leave to a minor.
  • Minor beneficiaries may be required to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) for a period of no more than 10 years upon receipt.
  • IRAs do not have to be used for a specific purpose to avoid taxation, which provides the beneficiary with greater flexibility.

Why Choose a Minor as an IRA Beneficiary?

There are several reasons why a donor might choose to bestow an IRA upon a beneficiary who has not yet attained the age of majority. One of the most obvious is that IRAs can provide much greater flexibility and potential for long-term growth than, for example, savings bonds. Also, IRAs do not have to be used for higher education or any other specific purpose in order to escape taxation.

More important, young beneficiaries get the benefit of lower required minimum distributions (RMDs) over their lives. Note that under recently passed legislation after the death of a plan participant or IRA owner, a non-spousal beneficiary is no longer permitted to stretch these RMDs over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. As of 2020, all amounts held by the plan or IRA must be distributed by the end of the 10th calendar year following the year of the employee or IRA owner’s death.

So, if you died and left $100,000 of IRA money to a 15-year-old granddaughter this year, for example, she would need to withdraw a minimum of $10,000 a year through age 25. Instead, if the money were inside a Roth IRA, she could wait until year 10 to withdraw all the funds tax-free.

Leaving an IRA to a minor requires the appointment of a guardian to manage the account until the child reaches adulthood.

Issues With Ownership

Common law dictates that certain legal measures must be taken to protect minors in circumstances like this. Minors cannot own legal property of any kind in their name. One way around this is to appoint a guardian or conservator to manage the property on their behalf until they reach the age of majority (18 or 21, depending on the state). Appointing a guardian is your responsibility. If you do not do this, the court will appoint one for you—and that could be someone who may have very different ideas about how the account should be managed and invested.

There is no escaping this appointment, as the law prohibits IRA custodians from dealing directly with minors in any capacity. A will alone will not rectify this problem for you because wills only deal with probatable assets, and IRAs are exempt from probate.

One of the minor’s parents or another relative can petition the court for guardianship if you make no appointment, but this can be costly, time-consuming, and in the end, totally unnecessary. It can also become a protracted legal battle if the minor’s parents have divorced, and both seek custody of the account.

Options for the IRA

There are a few different ways that your beneficiary can receive the IRA.

Custodial Account

One option is to put the distributions inside a custodial account, such as a UGMA or a UTMA account. However, there could be adverse tax consequences for the minor’s parents (or whoever claims the minor as a dependent on a tax return) if the minor’s income is above a certain level since the parent or guardian must pay tax on the excess at their top marginal tax rate. This also gives the minor sole custody of the property at the age of majority, an age at which many young adults are not ready to handle a large sum of money.

529 Plans

Another possible solution is to put the money into a 529 plan, which allows the assets to grow tax-free until they are used to pay for qualified higher education expenses. However, if the minor decides not to pursue a college education, then this plan can backfire.

A Trust

A more comprehensive (albeit expensive) solution may be to substitute a revocable living trust as the beneficiary for the IRA, with the minor as the beneficiary for the trust. The guardian would then be appointed as the trustee. One benefit is that a trust allows you to provide specific instructions as to how you want the guardian to handle the IRA distributions for the minor.

There are several types of trusts that you can use to this end. A conduit trust would siphon the distributions directly from the IRA to the minor so that the trust is not taxed (a situation you want to avoid whenever possible, as trust tax rates are currently among the highest).

If the minor has special needs, an accumulation trust may be appropriate. Although this arrangement does keep the money inside the trust to be taxed at higher trust rates, it also ensures that the money will be used for the minor’s benefit, conceivably even after he or she reaches adulthood.

The Bottom Line

There are several alternatives to choose from if you wish to leave your IRA to a minor beneficiary. Check with your IRA custodian to see what its requirements are regarding this matter. If your wishes cannot be fulfilled through mere beneficiary designations or guardian appointments, then consider using a trust to ensure that the minor receives the IRA distributions in the manner you specify.