The Taxes on the Inheritance of a Tax Deferred Annuity

by Cynthia Gaffney ; Updated March 31, 2018

Tax-deferred annuities are investment products typically offered by insurance companies. People purchase them either through an employer's retirement plan or independently through an insurance company or financial planner that works with a broker. Annuities are contracts that pay regular payments to provide income during retirement, and they come with a payment guarantee made by the issuing insurance company. If you've inherited an annuity, you may owe taxes on some or all of the proceeds, depending on what type of contract the original owner purchased.

What Does Tax-Deferred Mean?

Deferring the taxes on an investment means postponing taxes on any interest growth or capital appreciation while the investment grows during a person's working years. Once the original account owner or an heir starts taking distributions, whether in payments or in one lump sum, the money is taxed at the individual's regular tax rate. In some cases, if the tax-deferred annuity is non-qualified, no taxes are due on the principal portion when it's paid out.

Taxation and Qualified Versus Non-Qualified Status

Annuities with a qualified status are taxed like an IRA, 401(k) or other retirement account. The account is funded with pre-tax dollars, and the annuity is usually purchased through a workplace retirement plan. Because qualified plans are funded with pre-tax dollars, both the principal and the growth must be taxed when taken out of the account upon the owner's retirement or a distribution to an heir.

Non-qualified annuities carry this name because they do not qualify to receive pre-tax contribution dollars. Account owners fund these annuities with after-tax dollars. These annuities are typically purchased outside of workplace retirement plans, through a financial planner or directly from an insurance company. Because taxes were already paid on the original principal before it was contributed to the account, once the money is withdrawn at retirement, the owner or heir pays taxes only on the growth.

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Tax-Deferred Annuity Tax Treatment

If the owner of an annuity designates a spouse as beneficiary, the spouse can continue contributing and receiving tax-deferred growth, and receive the same tax treatment, as if he were the original account owner.

However, non-spouse beneficiaries inheriting an annuity must take distribution of the funds, either in a lump sum or in payments. If the annuity was a qualified plan, a person inheriting the money pays regular tax on all of the cash. If the annuity was a non-qualified plan, meaning that it was funded with after-tax dollars, the person inheriting would pay tax only on the growth portion of the money.

Choosing Periodic Distributions or a Lump Sum

The inheriting beneficiary can choose to take periodic payments from an annuity to spread out the tax liability over several periods, rather than having a large amount of income with the corresponding tax liability all in one tax year. Additionally, when someone inherits an annuity, it's treated differently than some other investments that need to have their values updated, or "stepped up," as of the owner's date of death. If it's a non-qualified annuity, it does not receive any step-up in its basis upon the owner's death.

About the Author

Cynthia Gaffney started writing in 2007 and has penned tax and finance articles for several different websites. She brings more than 20 years of experience in corporate finance and business ownership. Gaffney holds a Bachelor of Science in finance and business economics from the University of Southern California.

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