Income in Respect of Decedent (IRD) is income on which the decedent has yet to pay income tax, but which the decedent earned or had a right to receive prior to death. A simple example is a salesman earns a commission, and dies before the commission is paid. If the surviving spouse or any heir receives that commission, that is considered IRD and is taxable income to the recipient.

Another common example is a deferred compensation agreement where the recipient dies before all retirement payments are received. Any future payments to the surviving spouse or heirs are IRD and thus taxable income to the heirs when received. Perhaps the most common situation that creates IRD is tax-deferred retirement accounts (such as 401(k)s and IRAs) and tax-deferred annuities.

Most people understand that lifetime withdrawals from tax-deferred accounts are usually income taxable. Unfortunately, that rule does not change once the account owner dies. The beneficiary of the tax-deferred account must also pay income tax on any withdrawals. The Internal Revenue Code simply authorizes collection of the income tax they have been letting the owner defer – possibly for decades.

IRD And Double Taxation
So when children inherit a tax-deferred account, they inherit an asset that has a tax liability (potentially up to 40% or more) built into it.

To make matters worse, tax-deferred account balances are also included in the estate. If an estate is valued at more than the exemption equivalent amount ($5.49 million in 2017), estate taxes will apply. Estate tax rates reach as high as 40% for estates over the exemption amount in the year 2017.

The end result is that wealthier clients will see their tax-deferred accounts subject to double taxation (estate and income), resulting in a potential reduction of over 60% before the children see a net withdrawal. There is an income tax deduction that helps to partially reduce the income tax, but the combined tax effect can still hit over 60%.

If you have sizable tax-deferred account balances and an estate over the exemption amount (potentially large enough to be subject to estate taxes), there are some estate planning strategies that may help you avoid double taxation and better transfer that wealth to your heirs.