When creating or reviewing an estate plan, reviewing beneficiary designations on retirement plans or life insurance policies may not be given the weight it deserves. The assumption is that a will or trust is enough to make sure your money goes where you want it to go when you pass.
To understand the importance of designating a beneficiary, consider the Supreme Court case Hillman v. Maretta. Warren Hillman made his then-wife, Judy Maretta, the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. They eventually divorced, and Hillman remarried. However, he didn’t change the beneficiary on the policy from his ex-wife to his new wife. When Mr. Hillman passed, there were legal questions as to who would receive the money from the policy. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of Ms. Maretta, and she received nearly $125K in benefits from the policy. Mr. Hillman’s widow received nothing.
That is just one of many beneficiary designation disasters. Simply stating in your will how you want the money in a retirement account to be distributed is not enough. Having an up-to-date beneficiary designation can make sure your assets go where you intended.
Beyond providing the security of having your assets go where you desire, beneficiary designations offer important tax advantages for your loved ones as well. A consequence of not naming a beneficiary or naming your estate as the beneficiary is that those assets may be completely taxable five years after death. By naming your loved ones or a trust as the beneficiary, the funds can be withdrawn over a longer period of time. This allows the accounts, such as a traditional IRA, to continue to grow tax-deferred.
A second advantage of naming beneficiaries is the ability to avoid probate. Probate is the legal process for distributing your assets after your death, and, in most cases, will not benefit your beneficiaries. It is often a time-consuming, expensive process that simply adds one more hoop for your heirs to jump through.
Beneficiary forms are easily obtainable from the institutions where you have accounts or may even be available online. Depending on the type of asset, you may need to ask for different forms. From a bank, you would request a “Payable on Death” form while non-retirement investments have “Transfer on Death” forms. For retirement accounts and life insurance policies, you only need to ask for a beneficiary designation form.
Obtaining the forms to update your beneficiary designations is an easy process; distributing your assets once you pass without designating a beneficiary isn’t. Taking the time to name and review your beneficiary designations can help you make sure your money goes where you intended.
Jim Sandager has an extensive retirement income planning background and has written several personal finance columns for The Des Moines Register. Jim studied at the University of Minnesota and Bowling Green State University.