What Happens If You Don’t Name Beneficiaries?

It’s always good to check into your retirement accounts and consider if you are saving enough and if your investments are properly balanced. However, what’s just as important is whether you’ve reviewed named beneficiaries for these and other accounts. The recommendation comes from the article titled “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries” from Idaho State Business Journal, and it’s sound advice.

In more cases than you might think, people overlook this detail, and their loved ones are left with the consequences. After all, you opened those accounts long ago, and who even remembers? Does it really matter?

In a word, yes. What if your family circumstances have changed since you named a beneficiary? If divorce and remarriage occurred, do you want your former spouse to receive your IRA, 401(k) and life insurance proceeds?

It’s important to understand that beneficiary designations supersede anything in your last will and testament. Therefore, while you’ve been dutifully updating your estate plans whenever life changes occur and neglecting beneficiary designations, your ex or someone else who is no longer in your life could receive a surprise windfall.

Here’s another detail often overlooked: retirement plans, and insurance policies may need more than one beneficiary. Any time there is an opportunity to name a contingent beneficiary, take advantage of it. If the primary beneficiary dies or refuses the inheritance and there is no contingent or secondary beneficiary, the proceeds could end up back into your estate. Depending on the laws of your state, they might end up being taxable, in addition to not going to your intended heir.

This is an easy thing to fix, but it takes diligence and in some cases, a fair amount of time.

Start by gathering information on all your accounts, including retirement, checking and savings accounts, 401(k)s, pension plans, insurance policies and any accounts containing assets you want to pass to loved ones. If you see anything incorrect or outdated, immediately contact the financial institution, your company’s benefits manager or your insurance representative to request a change-of-beneficiary form.

Once you receive the form, immediately address making the changes. Request a printed confirmation from the financial organization to confirm the change has been made. Don’t accept a verbal acknowledgement by a call center employee—this is too important to leave to chance.

To be on the safe side, it would be wise to have your estate planning attorney work with you on documenting your beneficiary designations as part of your estate plan. You may also pick up some smart pointers on other suggestions for dealing with beneficiaries.

For example, children are not permitted to control assets until they reach the age of majority. But when most children reach age 18 or 21, they are not ready to manage substantial sums of money. Your will names a guardian for minor children, but it is also wise to create a trust for the benefit of a minor that controls when distributions are made when they are older.

Most people want to leave something behind for those they love. Make sure to do it in the right way—including paying attention to beneficiary designations.

Reference: Idaho State Business Journal (July 27, 2021) “Review your IRA, 401(k) beneficiaries”

Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Let’s say you divorce and remarry and forget to change your beneficiary from your ex-spouse. Your ex-spouse will be smiling all the way to the bank. There won’t be much that your new spouse could do, if you forgot to make that change before you die. Any time there is a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, your beneficiary designations need to be reviewed, says the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger.

If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary. Children are contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death, if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do. It is wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries.

When there are multiple grandchildren, things can get a little complicated. Let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James, die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That’s probably not what you would want. However, there is a solution. You can specify that if one of your children dies before you and your spouse, their share goes to his or her children. This is a “per stirpes” distribution.

This way, each branch of the family will receive an equal share across generations. If this is what you want, you’ll need to request per stirpes, because equal distribution, or per capita, is the default designation. Not all insurance companies make this option available, so you’ll need to speak with your insurance broker to make sure this is set up properly for insurance or annuities.

Any assets that have a named designated beneficiary are not controlled by your will. Consequently, when you are creating or reviewing your estate plan, create a list of all of your assets and the desired beneficiaries for them. Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

How 401(K) Beneficiaries Work with Your Estate Plan

For anyone who thinks that their will or trust can be used to distribute assets in a 401(k) after they pass, think again. The beneficiaries listed in a 401(k), insurance policy or any account with the option to name a beneficiary supersede whatever directions are placed in a will or a trust. If you’re not careful, warns the article “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries” from The Motley Fool, your assets could end up in the wrong hands.

Here are some basics about beneficiaries that you need to know.

After you die, your estate goes through probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. However, assets like 401(k) plans that have named beneficiaries are typically passed to heirs outside of probate. The asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

When you opened a 401(k), you were almost certainly directed to name a beneficiary in the paperwork used to establish the account. That person is usually a spouse, child or a domestic partner.  The beneficiary is sometimes a trust (a legal entity that manages assets for the benefit of beneficiaries).

If no beneficiary was named and you were married when you established the account, most 401(k) plans designate your spouse as the default beneficiary. The surviving spouse is allowed to treat the account as if it is their own when they inherit it—they can delay withdrawing money until they are 72, when the IRS requires withdrawals to begin. The surviving spouse uses their own life expectancy, when calculating future withdrawals.

If someone other than a spouse was listed as the beneficiary, the assets are to be transferred into an inherited 401(k) and the amounts received are based on the percentage listed on the beneficiary designation form. Most plans give the beneficiaries the option to roll over an inherited 401(k) into an inherited IRA. This gives the account owners greater control over what they can do with their inheritance.

Once you have named a beneficiary on these accounts, it’s wise to list contingent beneficiaries, who will inherit the accounts, if the primary beneficiary is deceased. For most families, the children are the contingent beneficiaries and the spouse is the primary beneficiary.

The list of mistakes made when naming beneficiaries is a long one, but here are a few:

  • Setting up a trust to keep IRA or 401(k) assets from going to a minor or to protect services for a special needs child, then failing to list the trust as a beneficiary.
  • Not naming anyone as a beneficiary on an IRA or 401(k) plan.
  • Neglecting to check beneficiary names every few years or after big life changes.

If you set up a trust for your beneficiaries, you must list the trust as the beneficiary. If you don’t specifically list the trust, the account will pass to any person listed as a beneficiary, or the accounts will go through probate.

If you have had more than a few jobs and have more than a few 401(k) accounts, it can be challenging to track the accounts and the beneficiaries. Consolidating the accounts into one 401(k) account makes it easier for you and for your heirs.

If you do list a trust as a beneficiary, talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this correctly. The trust’s language must take into consideration how taxes will be handled. This could have big costs for your heirs.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 24, 2020) “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries”