How to Determine a Beneficiary for an IRA Disbursement

by D. Laverne O'Neal ; Updated April 19, 2017

Dealing with financial matters after death can tend to compound grief. Sorting through bank accounts, real estate, life insurance policies and retirement accounts can seem almost overwhelming in the early stages of the grieving process. Fortunately, the law requires that IRA account holders designate one or more beneficiaries upon opening an account. The owner reserves the right to change the designation at any time. Determining named beneficiaries requires proof that the account holder has died; it is typically undertaken by the estate executor.

Step 1

Find out which institution acts as trustee for the IRA. If the decedent kept her financial papers in a designated and readily identifiable place, such as a filing cabinet or strongbox, you may be able to easily locate documentation that relates to the IRA there. If her statement was mailed regularly, you may find it by sorting through her mail. If neither of these circumstances exists, check with the decedent's attorney, financial professionals or widowed spouse to find the information.

Step 2

Contact the financial institution to inform about the decedent's passing. If there is a certain person or department that is assigned to IRA matters after death, the financial institution will let you know.

Step 3

Write to or visit the appropriate state agency for a copy of the death certificate. In California, for example, you would contact the Department of Public Health. The agency may require certain paperwork and/or a fee to provide a death certificate copy.

Step 4

Mail or fax the official death certificate to the IRA trustee. The financial institution needs proof that the account holder has actually passed away.

Step 5

Find out from the financial institution which names are listed as designated beneficiaries of the decedent's IRA. Some institutions may require that you fill out a request form to get the information. Others may release the name(s) only to the estate executor. Be sure to comply with any and all policies.


  • In some cases, if the trustee discovers independently that the account owner has died, it will contact the beneficiary by phone or by mail to inform her of her beneficiary status.


  • Some financial institutions may be cagey about releasing the decedent's IRA-related information. Privacy concerns are at the root of their policies. Complying to the letter with their rules and requests is the best course.

About the Author

D. Laverne O'Neal, an Ivy League graduate, published her first article in 1997. A former theater, dance and music critic for such publications as the "Oakland Tribune" and Gannett Newspapers, she started her Web-writing career during the dot-com heyday. O'Neal also translates and edits French and Spanish. Her strongest interests are the performing arts, design, food, health, personal finance and personal growth.