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Deceased IRA owner? Check distribution record

When someone passes away after age 70 1/2, the family needs to check to see if the deceased took out the required minimum distributions for the year from his IRA (individual retirement account). If not, the beneficiary needs to act before the end of the year to avoid severe tax penalties. If you are in this situation, don’t delay.

Let’s take an example. “Mathew’s” father passed away in June at the age of 80. Mathew is the sole beneficiary of his father’s IRA.

His father’s practice was to wait until November to take his yearly required minimum distributions, so no IRA withdrawals had been made in 2017.

Mathew’s father should have withdrawn about $5,300 in 2017, based on a balance of $100,000 as of Dec. 31, 2016.

In order to avoid a tax penalty of $2,650 (50 percent of $5,300), Mathew needs to withdraw his father’s final required minimum distribution before the end of December.

This will trigger 2017 taxable income for Mathew.

The method of taking the distribution may differ based on the custodian.

For example, the form that Mathew would file to set up an “inherited IRA” in his own name may have a section that directs the custodian to calculate and withdraw the RMD before transferring the remaining assets into Mathew’s inherited IRA.

(If you would like to see sample language, email me.)

Another custodian might transfer the deceased’s entire IRA into the inherited IRA before the distribution can be requested.

While there is time pressure for Mathew to act quickly, imagine what happens if the IRA owner dies on the last day of the calendar year (Dec. 31).

According to attorney Natalie Choate of the law firm Nutter McClennen & Fish LLP, “the beneficiaries are supposed to take (the RMD), as we know, but in reality they have a few hours (or minutes) between the time (the IRA owner) dies and the ‘end of the year.’” Choate is the author of “Life and Death Planning for Retirement Benefits: The Essential Handbook for Estate Planners.”

The solution? “The beneficiaries should take the RMD for 2017 as soon as possible in 2018, and request from the IRS a waiver of the 50 percent penalty for failure to take the 2017 RMD in 2017,” explained Choate.

“The beneficiaries would clearly get the waiver — they couldn’t possibly take the RMD (in 2017) because there wasn’t enough time,” Choate said.

But they would have to explain the circumstances to the IRS. For example, the IRS might demand to know why the decedent hadn’t taken the distribution earlier. There may be “good cause” for waiting if the IRA owner was sick or dying for a substantial period of time in 2017.

The beneficiaries would file with their 2017 income tax returns IRS Form 5329 in order to explain why the penalty should be waived, even though the required minimum distribution was not taken in calendar year 2017. You’ll want to read the instructions to the form, focusing on Part IX, “Additional Tax on Excess Accumulation in Qualified Retirement Plans (Including IRAs).”

This is the part of the form the beneficiary will complete “if you did not receive” the distribution in 2017.

Line 52 of the form asks for the required minimum distributions.

Line 53 is the amount actually withdrawn during the calendar year.

For line 54, you subtract line 53 from line 52.

Line 55 is the additional tax (50 percent of line 54).

Let’s use Mathew’s numbers for the example:

Line 52 is $5,347.59.

Line 53 is zero.

Here is the complication: Even though the form calls for subtracting line 53 from 52, that leads to the wrong result. That is, the instructions to the form clarify that more is involved and it’s all about the “shortfall.” Logic suggests that in Mathew’s case the shortfall is $5,347.59 — but that logic is wrong, according to Choate. The correct amount to enter on line 54 is “zero” ($0). Why? Because you are claiming you missed the RMD due to reasonable cause; therefore, there should be no penalty. Line 54 is the amount of the (actual) shortfall minus the amount for which you are requesting a penalty waiver — net, zero.

Beneficiaries would file Form 5329 with their 2017 income tax returns. They take the (late) required minimum distribution in 2018 and report it as income in 2018.

Instructions for Form 5329 must be followed to the letter, Choate said.

What instructions? “Waiver of tax. When you complete lines 52 and 53, enter ‘RC’ (reasonable cause) and the amount you want waived in parentheses on the dotted line next to line 54.”

The IRS will determine whether to grant a waiver of the penalty based on this: You need to “show that any shortfall in the amount of distribution was due to reasonable error and you are taking reasonable steps to remedy the shortfall.”

You need to explain your rationale in a written statement attached to Form 5329.

One more piece of advice: If you are in this situation, get a tax adviser to help you.

These are just a few of the complexities of IRAs. Send me your questions on the topic at

Correction: Columnist Julie Jason provided incorrect information in a previous version of this column. This version contains the correct information for filing IRS Form 5329, which is the tax return form that beneficiaries should use to request a penalty be waived for failing to take the required minimum distribution from an IRA because the custodian has died.

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