An individual retirement account can accumulate significant funds as the owner saves for retirement over the long term. An IRA is also a good estate-planning tool, and the owner can name beneficiaries of his account. Most people name their spouse as a beneficiary of their IRA account. If the spouse dies at the same time as the account owner, other laws determine who ends up owning the account.
An IRA account, by its name, is owned by an individual. You cannot maintain joint ownership of an IRA account. Each spouse can have their own account, even if only one has an earned income. A spouse does not have a right to take immediate ownership of an IRA account unless she's the named beneficiary of the account.
Beneficiaries take ownership of an IRA account if the owner dies. An IRA owner can name multiple beneficiaries. They will split the balance evenly or in percentages specified by the owner. If an owner names his spouse as the only beneficiary and they both die at the same time, the account is treated as if it has no beneficiary. If there are surviving beneficiaries, they split the balance of the account.
Contingent beneficiaries are named to take ownership of the IRA account if all of the primary beneficiaries die before the owner of the account. If the spouse is the only named beneficiary of the account and she dies at the same time he does, ownership of the account passes directly to the contingent beneficiary, or to contingent beneficiaries if more than one person is named.
If the owner of the IRA account doesn't name a beneficiary, or if all of the primary and contingent beneficiaries die before the account owner, the IRA becomes part of the owner's estate. The proceeds of the IRA are then divided according to the owner's will. If the owner didn't have a will, the courts decide who ends up with the money from the account. The IRA is then liquidated shortly after the death, and any income taxes due are assessed at the time of liquidation.