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Should I leave my 401(k) and IRA to my wife or a trust?

October 26, 2012: 6:30 AM ET

I'm married and have a 401(k) and an IRA. My house and bank account are listed as living trusts. Should the beneficiary for the 401(k) and IRA be my wife or the trust? — Gary

The right choice will depend in part on how long you want those assets to keep benefiting from tax-deferred growth. Naming your wife as a direct beneficiary means that she can roll those assets into her own retirement accounts through what the IRS calls a spousal rollover. Those funds can keep growing, tax-deferred, until she has to begin taking required minimum distributions at age 70 1/2.

If you leave your 401(k) and IRA to the trust, and name your wife as a beneficiary to the trust, she will have to start taking required minimum distributions by the end of the year following your death. Those distributions would be based on her life expectancy.

"Naming your wife as the beneficiary of both retirement accounts is really the cleaner option of the two," says Jim Brogan, president of Knoxville, Tenn.-based Brogan Financial.

That said, you may consider leaving your 401(k) and IRA to a trust if you want more control over how those funds are distributed to your heirs. For example, if you want to make sure that your children from a previous marriage get some of your retirement savings as an inheritance, a trust can allow you to specify how to split up those assets. "If you leave the money outright to your wife," Brogan says, "she can name any beneficiaries she wants."

— Marc Mewshaw

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