Yes, you can name a charity as beneficiary of your IRA, but be sure to understand the advantages and disadvantages.
Generally, a spouse, child, or other individual you designate as beneficiary of a traditional IRA must pay federal income tax on any distribution received from the IRA after your death. By contrast, if you name a charity as beneficiary, the charity will not have to pay any income tax on distributions from the IRA after your death (provided that the charity qualifies as a tax-exempt charitable organization under federal law), a significant tax advantage.
After your death, distributions of your assets to a charity generally qualify for an estate tax charitable deduction. In other words, if a charity is your sole IRA beneficiary, the full value of your IRA will be deducted from your taxable estate for purposes of determining the federal estate tax (if any) that may be due. This can also be a significant advantage if you expect the value of your taxable estate to be at or above the federal estate tax exclusion amount ($5,450,000 for 2016).
Of course, there are also nontax implications. If you name a charity as sole beneficiary of your IRA, your family members and other loved ones will obviously not receive any benefit from those IRA assets when you die . If you would like to leave some of your assets to your loved ones and some assets to charity, consider leaving your taxable retirement funds to charity and other assets to your loved ones. This may offer the most tax-efficient solution, because the charity will not have to pay any tax on the retirement funds.
If retirement funds are a major portion of your assets, another option to consider is a charitable remainder trust (CRT). A CRT can be structured to receive the funds free of income tax at your death, and then pay a (taxable) lifetime income to individuals of your choice. When those individuals die, the remaining trust assets pass to the charity. Finally, another option is to name the charity and one or more individuals as co-beneficiaries. (Note: There are fees and expenses associated with the creation of trusts.)
The legal and tax issues discussed here can be quite complex. Be sure to consult an estate planning attorney for further guidance.