What Happens to an MRD When My Spouse Dies?

When a spouse dies, it affects many aspects of the surviving partner’s life, including financial matters such as Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from inherited retirement accounts. Understanding how these are managed when a spouse dies is crucial for proper financial planning and compliance with tax laws. The SECURE Act and its subsequent updates under SECURE 2.0 have introduced changes that surviving spouses need to be aware of when handling RMDs.

Options for Surviving Spouses Under SECURE Act Regulations

When a spouse dies, surviving spouses have unique options regarding the treatment of inherited IRAs or employer-sponsored retirement plans. These options include being treated as the account’s beneficiary or assuming ownership of the IRA.

  1. Treating the Surviving Spouse as a Beneficiary:
    • If the spouse opts to be treated as a beneficiary, they can defer starting RMDs until the later of the year following the owner’s death or the year the deceased would have reached the required beginning date for RMDs. This date is now April 1 of the year following the calendar year in which the owner reaches the age specified by the SECURE Act updates — currently 73 in 2023, moving to 75 in 2033.
  2. Electing to Be Treated as the IRA’s Owner:
    • As of 2024, under SECURE 2.0, a spouse can choose to be treated as the IRA’s original owner, which can be particularly advantageous if the surviving spouse is younger. This choice allows the spouse to delay RMDs based on their own life expectancy and defer distributions until their own required beginning date.

Special Considerations for Younger Spouses

For spouses who are significantly younger than the deceased (more than 10 years), the RMDs can be calculated over the joint life expectancy of both spouses, potentially reducing the amount required to be distributed annually.

Younger surviving spouses who need access to funds and are under age 59½ might prefer to continue treating the IRA as a beneficiary IRA. This approach permits withdrawals without the 10% early withdrawal penalty, providing greater financial flexibility. However, for Roth IRAs, the five-year rule for tax-free withdrawals still applies, affecting the taxation of earnings.

Additional Points for Older Surviving Spouses

If the surviving spouse is older than the deceased, treating the inherited IRA as a beneficiary IRA might result in smaller RMDs, based on the deceased spouse’s age rather than recalculating them based on the older surviving spouse’s shorter life expectancy.

Consequences of Not Taking Timely RMDs

It’s crucial for surviving spouses to take RMDs as required. If a surviving spouse fails to take an RMD by the end of the year following the account owner’s death, the account is deemed rolled over into the spouse’s own IRA, altering the RMD calculations and schedules.

Strategic Planning with a Fee-Only Financial Adviser

Given the complexities involved in managing inherited retirement assets, consulting with an independent Fee-Only financial adviser is highly recommended. They can provide tailored advice based on the surviving spouse’s specific financial situation, helping navigate the choices between beneficiary and owner treatments, and planning for future financial needs.


The rules surrounding RMDs after the death of a spouse can be complex, especially with the changes brought by the SECURE Act and SECURE 2.0. Surviving spouses have several options that can significantly impact their financial planning and tax situations. Understanding these options and making informed decisions is crucial to maximizing the financial benefits and ensuring compliance with the law.

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