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Inheriting Investment Accounts: A Comprehensive Guide

Fredericksburg, Virginia • Jun 12, 2024 11:54:03 AM • Lamont Brown MBA, CFP®


Inheriting investment accounts after the death of a loved one can be a challenging and emotional experience. If you find yourself in this situation you want to quickly understand what you've inherited to make sound financial decisions.

Navigating the complexities of inherited accounts is important for making the best decisions about the assets and integrating them into your existing financial plan. The more you know, the better prepared you'll be to manage these accounts so that they can help cover expenses and eventually support your financial goals.

This guide will help you understand the inheritance of retirement and non-retirement investment accounts and make confident, informed decisions that honor your loved one's legacy while helping to secure your financial future.

Inheriting Retirement Investments

Retirement accounts like IRAs and 401(k)s are common accounts for accumulating wealth over a working lifetime. They offer tax advantages that can enhance the value of saved assets but come with some special considerations when inherited. Let's look at the key aspects of each account type.

Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

There are two primary types of IRA accounts. Their rules and requirements are different for transferring inherited investment accounts:

  • Traditional IRAs: Contributions are usually tax-deductible. Investments grow tax-deferred until withdrawals begin, usually at retirement. Upon inheritance, beneficiaries must follow specific distribution rules to ensure they are meeting their requirements. Also, distributions from Traditional IRAs will impact your tax liabilities as the distributions are considered income.
  • Roth IRAs: Contributions come from after-tax dollars, and qualified withdrawals are tax-free. Inheriting a Roth IRA can be particularly advantageous because withdrawals are generally tax-free.

401(k) Plans

A 401(k) is an employer-sponsored retirement account where contributions are generally made pre-tax, reducing taxable income. Like traditional IRAs, the investments grow tax-deferred. Some employers also offer Roth 401(k) options, which combine the benefits of a 401(k) with the tax-free withdrawals of a Roth IRA.

When inheriting IRAs or 401(k) accounts, it's important to understand beneficiary rules, which affect how and when you can access funds. For example, spousal beneficiaries have more options, such as rolling the account into their own IRA, which can defer taxes further. Non-spousal beneficiaries must follow the 10-year rule. This requires the account to be distributed within ten years of the original owner's death.

Key Considerations for Inherited Retirement Investments

Maximizing benefits from inherited retirement accounts requires understanding your options as a beneficiary and navigating tax obligations. Here's what you should know. 

1. Understanding Your Beneficiary Options

As mentioned, spousal beneficiaries have unique options when inheriting retirement accounts such as IRAs or 401(k)s. You can roll over the inherited account into your own IRA, allowing the funds to grow tax-deferred.

This option provides significant flexibility for withdrawals and tax planning, as you can delay required minimum distributions (RMDs) until age 73. Alternatively, you can treat the inherited IRA as your own, which offers different advantages depending on your age and retirement timeline.

Non-spousal beneficiaries must follow different rules when inheriting retirement accounts. The 10-year rule requires that inherited accounts be fully distributed within ten years of the original owner's death. To optimize tax implications, consider spreading distributions over the ten years rather than taking a lump sum. This can help manage your tax bracket and reduce the overall tax burden by avoiding large, taxable distributions in a single tax year.

2. Considering Tax Implications

Distributions from inherited traditional IRAs and 401(k)s are subject to income tax. Plan your withdrawals strategically to avoid pushing yourself into a higher tax bracket. For instance, you might take smaller distributions over several years, aligning them with years when your income is lower to minimize tax impact.

Inherited Roth IRAs offer significant advantages because qualified distributions are tax-free. It may be beneficial to let the funds continue growing tax-free within the Roth IRA for as long as possible before taking distributions, especially if you anticipate being in a higher tax bracket in the future.

Inheriting Non-Retirement Investments

Inheriting non-retirement investments like stocks, bonds, and cash provides valuable financial benefits. Here's an overview:


Inheriting stocks is advantageous due to the potential for capital appreciation and dividend income. When you inherit stocks, you benefit from a step-up in basis, which resets the value of the inherited stock to its market value at the time of the original owner's death. This advantage can significantly reduce capital gains taxes if you decide to sell the stock shortly after inheriting it.

Additionally, if stocks are dividend-paying, they can provide a steady stream of income, which can then be reinvested or otherwise used to meet your financial needs.


Inheriting bonds offers a different set of benefits. Bonds can provide a predictable income stream through regular interest payments, which can be a stable addition to your financial portfolio. The value of the bond itself may also increase if interest rates fall, although this is less common.

When you inherit bonds, it's important to understand the bond terms, including the interest rate, maturity date, and any potential call features. The step-up in basis also applies to bonds, which can reduce capital gains taxes if the bond is sold at a higher value than its original purchase price.


Inheriting cash is straightforward and offers immediate liquidity. This liquidity provides flexibility, allowing you to use the funds as needed, whether to cover immediate expenses, pay off debt, or invest in other opportunities.

One of the advantages of inheriting cash is that it doesn't come with the complexities of other inherited assets. There are no tax implications for inheriting cash itself, though there may be considerations if the cash generates interest income when deposited in a bank account or invested.

How to Leverage the Step-Up in Basis for Tax Advantages

The step-up in basis is a powerful tax benefit that can reduce the tax burden on inherited investment accounts. Here are some strategies to leverage.

1. Get Professional Advice

When you inherit stocks, determine the fair market value at the time of the original owner's death. Get a professional appraisal to establish the new basis accurately. This is essential for calculating any future capital gains.

2. Plan the Timing of Sales

For inherited stocks or bonds, consider the timing of your sales to optimize tax outcomes. If they have appreciated since the date of inheritance, selling them when your income is lower can reduce capital gains tax. 

3. Utilize Tax-Loss Harvesting

If you inherit stocks or bonds that have declined in value, consider selling them to realize a capital loss. These losses can offset capital gains from other investments, reducing tax liability. Tax-loss harvesting can be an effective strategy to balance gains and losses in your portfolio.

4. Donate Appreciated Assets

Donating appreciated stocks or bonds to charity can provide significant tax benefits. You can avoid capital gains taxes on the appreciation and receive a charitable deduction for the asset's full market value. This is a tax-efficient way to support causes that are important to you.

Integrating Inherited Investments into Your Financial Plans

Inheriting investment accounts offers a unique opportunity to enhance your financial future. To make the most of these assets, it is important to have a clear vision of your financial goals and assess your current financial situation. 

Start by defining your financial vision for the future. Consider what you want to achieve in the short term and long term. Whether buying a home, starting a business, funding education, or planning for retirement, having a clear vision will guide your decisions.

Then, take a comprehensive look at your finances. This process should involve reviewing your finances, including assets, liabilities, income, expenses, and financial goals. 

Take inventory of your current financial position to better utilize your inherited investment accounts, including your:

  • Assets: List all current assets, including cash, investments, real estate, and retirement accounts.
  • Liabilities: Record any debts you owe, such as mortgages, car loans, credit card balances, and student loans.
  • Income and expenses: Analyze your income streams and expenses to understand your cash flow.
  • Financial goals: Revisit your short-term and long-term financial goals. Consider how the inherited assets can help you achieve these objectives.

Best Practices to Consider Moving Forward

Once you holistically understand your financial landscape, you can better integrate inherited investment accounts to align with your goals and needs. 

Once you've assessed your finances, consider these best practices.

1. Prioritize High-Interest Debt

Use inherited assets to pay off high-interest debt, such as credit card balances or personal loans. Reducing high-interest debt decreases the interest you pay over time and frees up your income for savings and investments.

2. Enhance Your Emergency Fund

Ensure you have an emergency fund covering 3-6 months of living expenses. If your emergency fund is not yet funded, use part of the inheritance to bolster it. A solid emergency fund provides financial security and peace of mind during unexpected events.

3. Maximize Retirement Contributions

Consider using inherited assets to increase your contributions to retirement accounts. By maximizing your retirement savings, you can take advantage of compound growth.

4. Diversify Your Investment Portfolio

Integrate inherited investments into a well-diversified portfolio. Diversification involves spreading your investments across different asset classes, sectors, and geographical regions to help reduce exposure to any single investment's risk.

Consulting with a financial advisor can help you develop an investment strategy that aligns with your risk tolerance and financial goals.

5. Invest in Education or Skill Development

If you have educational goals or want to improve your professional skills, consider using inherited funds to invest in education or training programs. Enhancing your knowledge and skills can increase your earning potential and contribute to long-term financial success.

6. Plan for Major Life Events

An inherited investment account can be used to plan for major life events such as buying a home, starting a business, or funding a child's education. Allocate funds towards these significant milestones to ensure you are financially prepared.

The Importance of Consulting With a Financial Professional

Understanding the inheritance of retirement and non-retirement investments can be challenging. Consulting with a financial professional can help. A financial advisor can help you develop a strategy tailored to your personal situation and goals.

In turn, you can be confident your inherited investment account can enhance your financial security. Reach out to ALNA Financial today and take the first step toward securing your financial future.

Start the conversation with ALNA today


This article is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It does not consider any individual or personal financial, legal, or tax circumstances. As such, the information contained herein is not intended and should not be construed as individualized advice or recommendation of any kind. Where specific advice is necessary or appropriate, individuals should contact their professional tax, legal, and investment advisors or other professionals regarding their circumstances and needs.   Any opinions expressed herein are subject to change without notice. The information provided herein is believed to be reliable, but we do not guarantee accuracy, timeliness, or completeness. It is provided “as is” without any express or implied warranties.   There is no assurance that any investment, plan, or strategy will be successful. Investing involves risk, including the possible loss of principal. Past performance does not guarantee future results, and nothing herein should be interpreted as an indication of future performance. Dividends are not guaranteed and are subject to change or elimination. Diversification is an investment strategy designed to help manage risk, but it cannot ensure a profit or protect against loss in a declining market.  Qualified distributions from a Roth are tax and penalty free if the 5-year aging requirement is satisfied, and owner must be age 59½ or older or meet one of several exemptions (disability, qualified first-time home purchase, or death among them).

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