Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid
You may be surprised at how easy it is to make an expensive mistake with your beneficiary designations.
Many people might not realize that their will does not control who inherits all of their assets when they die. Many assets pass by beneficiary designation — which is the ability to fill out a form with the financial company holding the asset and name who will inherit the asset upon your death.
Assets such as life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts (401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. In addition, many financial companies allow you to name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, which are known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.
While naming a beneficiary can be an easy way to ensure your loved ones will receive assets directly, beneficiary designations can also cause many problems. It’s your responsibility to make sure your beneficiary designations are properly filled out and given to the financial company — and mistakes can be costly.
Here are five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:
1. Not naming a beneficiary.
Many people never name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. The reason could be people may not realize they can name a beneficiary, or they just never get around to filling out the forms.
If you do not name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, then the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, typically the proceeds will be paid to your probate estate. This means that your family will need to hire a lawyer, go to court and probate your estate to claim the proceeds.
For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. But, if you’re not married, the retirement account will likely be paid to your probate estate, which has unpleasant income tax ramifications. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, all of the assets will need to be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This causes acceleration of the deferred income tax, which must be paid earlier than would have otherwise been necessary.
2. Not taking into account special circumstances.
Not all loved ones should receive an asset directly. These individuals include minors, individuals with specials needs, or individuals with an inability to manage assets or with creditor issues. Because children are not legally competent, they will not be able to claim the assets. A court-appointed person (known as a conservator) will have to claim and manage the money until the minor turns 18.
Conservatorships can be very costly and require annual accountings to the court. In addition, conservators often need to file a bond with the court, which is typically purchased from an insurance company and can be expensive.
Individuals with special needs who receive assets directly can lose valuable government benefits, because once they receive the inheritance directly, more than likely, they will own too many assets to qualify. And, individuals with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts.
In such instances, it’s preferable to create a Trust to be named as the beneficiary. The Trustee (who is in charge of the Trust) can claim and manage the asset for your intended recipients for a period of time that takes into account each particular situation.
3. Naming the wrong beneficiary.
Sometimes individuals fill out their beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. There can be multiple people in a family with similar names (such Sr., Jr. and III), but the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. Individuals change their names over time through marriage or divorce, or assumptions can be made about a person’s legal name that later prove incorrect.
Not having names match exactly can cause delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, it can result in litigation.
4. Not updating beneficiaries over time.
Who you want to or should name as a beneficiary will mostly likely change over time as circumstances change. Naming a beneficiary is part of an overall estate plan. Just as life changes, so should your estate plan.
Beneficiary designations are an important part of that overall plan, so you want to make sure they are updated regularly.
5. Not reviewing beneficiary designations with legal and financial advisers.
How beneficiary designations should be filled out is part of an overall financial and estate plan. It’s best to involve your legal and financial advisers to determine what is best for your individual situation.
Remember, beneficiary designations are designed to ensure you have the ultimate say over who will get your assets when you are gone. By taking the time to carefully (and correctly) select your beneficiaries and then periodically reviewing those choices and making any necessary updates, you stay in control of your money … and that is what estate planning is all about, after all.
About the Author
Partner and Chair of Trusts and Estates Group, Mirick O'Connell
Estate attorney Tracy Craig is a partner and chair of Mirick O'Connell's Trusts and Estates Group. She focuses on estate planning, estate administration, prenuptial agreements, tax-exempt organizations, guardianships and conservatorships and elder law. Craig is a Fellow of the American College of Trust and Estate Counsel and an AEP®. She has received an AV® Preeminent Peer Review Rating by Martindale-Hubbell, the highest rating available for legal ability and professional ethics.