A larger share of people’s savings is winding up in IRAs—even as estate-tax rules are getting trickier and the markets are growing more volatile. All of this is making life more complicated for widows and widowers, and could cause them to make significant mistakes with their money. One big problem is that the “common wisdom” or standard advice doesn’t fit every situation. Here are two common mistakes that surviving spouses make while sorting out their finances to deal with the new reality:
Paying unnecessary IRA penalties. If you inherit an IRA from your spouse, you can roll it over into your own IRA. In fact, some IRA custodians and 401(k) plans automatically do that unless the surviving spouse’s financial planner intervenes. Such a “spousal rollover” generally makes sense if you are at least 59½ years old, the age at which you are allowed to start tapping an IRA without paying a 10% penalty on early withdrawals—though you will still owe income tax.
But the median age for women widowed the first time is 59.4, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That means many widows are younger than 59½, and if they need to tap IRA assets to supplement their income or cover other expenses, they would have to pay that 10% penalty.
People under 59½ often are better off transferring the money into an “inherited IRA,” which remains in the deceased spouse’s name, and then transferring it into their own IRA when they reach age 59.
With an inherited IRA, most beneficiaries have to take a required withdrawal every year based on their life expectancies. But if the deceased spouse were not yet 70½, the surviving spouse doesn’t have to take any required distributions until the year the deceased spouse would have turned 70½. (With an inherited Roth IRA, you still would have to follow the same withdrawal schedule, but you generally wouldn’t owe any income tax.)
Surviving spouses need to assess their own risk tolerance, not just adopt the one their wife or husband used.
Collecting Social Security too soon. Surviving spouses are allowed to start collecting Social Security survivor benefits at 60—but, as with Social Security retirement benefits, they would get a smaller amount each month than they would if they waited until their full retirement age. For more information, go to ssa.gov/retire2/agereduction.htm and ssa.gov/survivorchartred.htm.
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