The qualified retirement plan and individual retirement account (IRA) have become some of the most significant assets in a person's estate. The income tax treatment of these assets affects a very large number of taxpayers. One of the most important federal income tax provisions relating to these assets involves the IRA "spousal rollover" provided for under Internal Revenue Code (Code) sections 402(c) and 408(d)(3)(A).
Under these provisions, eligible distributions from a qualified retirement plan or IRA that are paid into an IRA for the benefit of the surviving spouse of the qualified retirement plan participant or IRA owner within sixty days of the distribution date (a "spousal rollover") are not subject to inclusion in gross income under Code section 72. Such spousal rollovers are very important, because they allow the surviving spouse to take distributions over his or her own life expectancy, redetermined annually using the Uniform Table, and also to name his or her own beneficiary, who in turn can take distributions over that beneficiary's life expectancy.
The preamble to the Final Income Tax Regulations promulgated under Code section 401(a) (9) (the "Preamble Language") states as follows with respect to the circumstances in which a spousal rollover is available:
If [a surviving] spouse actually receives a distribution from the IRA, the spouse is permitted to roll that distribution over within 60 days into an IRA in the spouse's own name to the extent that the distribution is not a required distribution, regardless of whether or not the spouse is the sole beneficiary of the IRA owner. Further, if the distribution is received by the spouse before the year that the IRA owner would have been 70½, no portion of the distribution is a required minimum distribution for purposes of determining whether it is eligible to be rolled over by the surviving spouse.
These "spousal rollover" portions of the Code and regulations thereunder are extremely complicated, and often are poorly understood by the average estate planning attorney or accountant, when they are applied to circumstances in which the surviving spouse is not named directly as a beneficiary. Most troubling is the fact that a significant number of retirement plan and IRA plan sponsors are now requiring that a surviving spouse obtain a private letter ruling before the plan sponsor will allow a spousal rollover to be made when an estate or trust, and not the spouse, is named as beneficiary. As a result, the many private rulings addressing this issue (discussed below) and the Preamble Language itself in many cases effectively have been rendered moot. The cost to both the IRS and taxpayers of each taxpayer having to request a private ruling in this circumstance will be enormous.
Therefore, a Revenue Ruling is needed addressing spousal rollovers of a decedent's interest in a Retirement Plan or IRA (the "Decedent's Interest") where an estate or trust (not the surviving spouse) is the named beneficiary of such Decedent's Interest.
The IRS has issued many private letter rulings, going back more than a decade, in which a surviving spouse was allowed to roll over a Decedent's Interest even though the beneficiary of the Decedent's Interest in the Retirement Plan or IRA was the decedent's estate or trust. In each of the private letter rulings, the rollover was valid because the surviving spouse was either the executor or trustee of the estate or trust, was in control, and was the sole person who could make the decision to distribute the Decedent's Interest to the surviving spouse. In other words, the Decedent's Interest was not treated as having passed through a third-party estate or trust. Instead, the surviving spouse was treated as having received the Decedent's Interest from the decedent.
A recent ruling, PLR 200807025 (Nov. 23, 2007), allowed a spousal rollover where an IRA passed to an estate and became part of a grantor trust which became irrevocable upon the grantor's death. The IRA could have been allocated to anyone of four separate subtrusts. The surviving spouse was not in complete control of the distributions from the trust. One Co-Trustee of the Marital Trust was the spouse. She and the other Co-trustee of the Marital Trust were required to approve the allocation of the Decedent's Interest to the Marital Trust. The spouse then withdrew the Decedent's Interest from the Marital Trust and requested a favorable ruling that she could roll over the withdrawal to an IRA maintained in her name. The IRS granted her request and quoted the Preamble Language for justification.
In a recent Webcast, however, an IRS representative indicated that the Preamble Language should be read as applying only when the surviving spouse has control and that PLRs similar to 200807025 will likely not be granted. He explained that the taxpayer in that private ruling represented that there was no choice as to how the IRA would be allocated among the trusts presented in that fact pattern.
Need for Guidance:
A Revenue Ruling is necessary in order to provide assurance to plan sponsors and guidance to taxpayers as to the circumstances under which a spousal rollover is valid if an estate or trust is named as the beneficiary. As mentioned above, such a ruling will avoid the very significant cost to taxpayers and to the IRS of compelling taxpayers faced with these circumstances to request a private ruling to address this issue, a requirement that is being placed on taxpayers by a significant number of plan sponsors.
Further, taxpayers may not rely on private letter rulings granted to others. This means that, regardless of the interpretation applied to the Preamble Language in private letter rulings, practitioners may not wish to recommend spousal rollovers when an estate or trust, rather than the spouse, is named as the beneficiary unless they obtain a private letter ruling for the client or the IRS makes its position official, such as by issuing a revenue ruling. Given the ubiquitous nature of retirement plans and IRAs, such an official position would be of great benefit to all.
In addition, clarifying the meaning of the Preamble Language would be beneficial. Based upon the private letter rulings and informal statements from IRS representatives, it is unclear whether a surviving spouse must be in complete control of the distribution for a rollover to be valid, or whether the spouse can roll over the distribution to a spousal IRA regardless of whether the spouse is in control of the distribution as long as a spouse receives a distribution pursuant to the terms of the estate or trust.
We respectfully request that the IRS issue as soon as practicable a revenue ruling (or other pronouncement upon which taxpayers may rely) that a spousal rollover may be accomplished by a surviving spouse with a distribution (other than a required minimum distribution) actually received by him or her from a deceased spouse's qualified retirement plan or IRA even though a trust or estate is named as the beneficiary of that qualified retirement plan or IRA.
In addition, the ruling should clarify whether spousal control over the distribution from the trust or estate named as beneficiary is or is not required.
In our view, based on the Preamble Language, it seems that it is sufficient for a valid spousal rollover that the spouse actually receives a distribution of the Decedent's Interest in accordance with the terms of the decedent's estate or trust or governing state law. Therefore, control by the spouse should not be required. However, clarification of this point, regardless of the outcome, is essential to provide certainty in this area and eliminate the need for seeking individual private letter rulings in order to complete a spousal rollover.
We appreciate your attention to this request.