Ever since the SECURE Act created a 10-year payout rule for most IRA beneficiaries, that topic has garnered the bulk of conversation. This is understandable. Not only was the 10-year rule a brand-new payout structure, but questions swirling around the application of the 10-year window remain unsettled. The IRS continues to kick the can down the road when it comes to determining if required minimum distributions (RMDs) apply within 10 years for certain beneficiaries. Notices 2022-53 and 2023-54 waived the penalty for “missed” RMDs within the 10 years for 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Despite the upheaval of the IRA beneficiary payout rules, regardless of the introduction of “eligible designated beneficiaries” as a new class of heirs, and after the original SECURE Act/SECURE 2.0/IRS Notices/proposed regulations…one thing has remained unchanged: the payout rules applicable when a non-designated beneficiary (what I like to call a “non-person” beneficiary – like an estate) inherits an account. As has been the case for many years, there are only two possible outcomes: the “ghost rule” or the 5-year rule.

Whether the ghost or the 5-year rule applies depends upon when a person dies about his required beginning date (RBD), which is when RMDs are officially “turned on.” The RBD is April 1 of the year after the year a person turns 73. (Before the RMD age was raised to 73, the RBD was April 1 of the year after a person turned 70 ½ or 72, depending on what RMD age was in effect at the time.) The RBD is a definitive date on the calendar, and we all have one. You can either die before that date, or you can die on or after that date. And if you have a non-person (like an estate) as your IRA beneficiary, WHEN you die the RBD matters.


If a person dies BEFORE the RBD with a non-person beneficiary (we’ll assume it’s the estate in this article), the 5-year rule applies. This is the only time the 5-year IRA beneficiary payout rule presents itself. Year One starts in the year after the year of death. There are no annual RMDs within the 5 years. The only stipulation is that the estate-owned inherited IRA account must be emptied by the end of the fifth year. Interestingly, any 5-year payout schedules started in 2016 – 2019 became 6-year schedules. How? The CARES Act RMD waiver in 2020 also eliminated 2020 from any 5-year calculation, so anyone in this category essentially has a 6-year rule. Also, be aware that all Roth IRA owners, no matter how old they might be, are always deemed to die before the RBD because Roth IRAs do not have lifetime RMDs.


If a person dies ON or AFTER the RBD with a non-person beneficiary, we have the ghost rule. The estate-owned inherited IRA will have annual RMDs based on the deceased IRA owner’s remaining single life expectancy, had he survived. One quirk to remember – we use the IRA owner’s age in the year OF death to calculate the first RMD factor, and then minus one for each year thereafter. This is different than the standard stretch IRA RMD calculation where we use the beneficiary’s age in the year AFTER the year of death.

Ghost Rule Example: Roger dies at age 87 and leaves his IRA to his estate (a non-person beneficiary). RMDs from this estate-owned inherited IRA are predicated on Roger’s remaining single life expectancy factor, minus one each year. The first RMD in the year following the year of death is based on Roger’s 6.1-year remaining single life expectancy factor (7.1 for an 87-year-old in the year OF death, minus one).

Ghost vs. the 5-year rule. The calendar dictates which will apply.


By Andy Ives, CFP®, AIF®
IRA Analyst

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