Can Beneficiary Designations Be Challenged?

The demise of traditional pension plans in the U.S. has been followed by a surge in assets held in participant directed retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s. The responsibility for investment decisions now belongs to the owners, says a recent article “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?” from Chattanooga Times Free Press. The owner is also responsible for beneficiary distributions after death, which doesn’t always go well.

Retirement accounts are outside of the probate estate. Therefore, assets pass to heirs directly. When people first enroll in a retirement plan or open an IRA account, it’s up to the account owner to stipulate who will receive the asset upon their death, known as the beneficiary. This sounds easy enough. The heirs don’t need to worry about probate and if the ownership transfer is done correctly, they can get some tax advantages from the accounts.

When the owner doesn’t pay attention to beneficiary designations, expensive problems occur.

Failing to name a beneficiary. This is the simplest and most commonly made mistake when enrolling in a company’s retirement plan or rolling assets into an IRA. More than a third of all IRA death claims submitted for processing are lacking a named beneficiary, according to a national retirement plan administrator company. Instead of assets passing directly to heirs, the IRA account flows into the estate and becomes subject to probate and estate taxes.

Once included in the estate, the assets are subject to the will. While IRA assets have up to ten years to be withdrawn, the time limit for distributions in an estate can be as short as five years, and the resulting taxes will be much higher. Even worse, the assets in the IRA are now available to creditors of the estate. Until the estate is fully distributed, it must pay tax returns. Even a modest IRA is going to generate more estate taxes than if it were outside of the estate.

If there is no will, the state decides where the assets go.

Failing to name contingent beneficiaries. If the account owner and primary beneficiary are both dead, there should be at least one contingent beneficiary named on the account. Lacking contingent beneficiaries, the account flows to the estate as if no beneficiary had been named.

Neglecting to update beneficiaries after major life events. Divorce and death happen. Account owners often forget to update beneficiary designations, leading to unintended recipients. In some states, but not all, a divorce decree nullifies the prior designation. However, don’t count on it. If the state does nullify the prior designation, the asset will flow into the probate estate.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. Most state laws do not permit minors to inherit significant assets without the oversight of a conservator. If a conservator is named by the court, the inheritance will be reduced substantially by court fees and the conservator’s salary. This may not be the worst part, if the asset is big. Here’s what’s worse: at age 18 or 21, a young adult will inherit the entire amount, with no restrictions.

After you’ve updated your beneficiaries, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how to protect assets, including retirement accounts and pensions.

Reference: Chattanooga Times Free Press (July 9, 2022) “Did you really intend for your ex to get your IRA?”

Why Is Beneficiary Designation Important?

The beneficiary designation will always supersede language of your will. Neglecting to know which assets have beneficiary designations and failing to update the designations can undo even the best estate plan.

The beneficiary designation for your life insurance or retirement account custodian provides an opportunity to tell the company who is to receive life insurance proceeds or retirement savings upon your death, explains a recent article titled “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. If these are not coordinated with a last will and testament, the results are problematic at best, and worse, financially, and emotionally devastating.

This epic fail comes in many different forms, but the most common is when a life insurance policy has never been updated and an ex-spouse receives the policy proceeds. The rules differ between retirement accounts and life insurance and can be impacted by various state and federal laws (and the divorce decree, if the life insurance policy was included). However, for the most part, the ex will receive the proceeds and litigation will not succeed.

Another common beneficiary designation mistake is when a person has created a living trust or revocable trust to prevent assets from going through probate when they die. Probate can take many months to complete and there are several strategies used to take assets out of the probate estate.

When the living trust is established and assets are transferred into the trust, those assets do not pass through probate.

However, if a person (or married couple) established a living trust and fails to list both primary and secondary beneficiaries for life insurance and/or retirement accounts, it is entirely possible that the assets will go through probate.

Take the time to make an inventory of all assets and accounts. Determine which ones have a beneficiary designation and find out who is named as the beneficiary. If your retirement accounts and life insurance policies were established decades ago, this is especially important.

Failing to coordinate beneficiary designations with your estate plan could undermine your wishes. Review these items with your estate planning attorney to avoid these and many other potential pitfalls.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (May 23, 2022) “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed”

Two Words Could Undo Your Entire Estate Plan

No one relishes the idea of planning for their own death, but the alternative of not planning and leaving your family members to sort out an expensive mess is a poor way to be remembered. According to a recent article from Kiplinger, titled These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary,” this information could save you from accidentally cutting someone out of your will.

First, always be sure the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, insurance accounts and any other accounts that permit you to have a named beneficiary, match up with your will and your wishes. Property and assets outside of your retirement accounts will be distributed by other estate planning tools, like trusts, or TODs (Transfer on Death) for jointly held assets. If you don’t make plans otherwise, most of your estate will go through probate. It’s can be expensive and time consuming, but with the right planning, it can be avoided.

Most people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary on their retirement account. If you don’t wish to do this, you may have to fill out paperwork and have your spouse sign a waiver agreeing to this. Federal law protects spouses, when it comes to certain types of retirement accounts, and ensuring that spouses receive each other’s retirement accounts is important, unless waived. After naming your primary beneficiary, you name contingent beneficiaries. If you are married and have children, it’s likely that your children will be your contingent beneficiaries. No children? In that case, a niece or nephew or other family member is usually named. By the way, if you want to give to charity, then retirement funds are the perfect asset to give.

The next decision to make is the key one: per stirpes or per capita. This step is often missed, because it’s not used on every asset form. Per stirpes is a Latin legal term that simply means if your primary beneficiary dies before you die, their next of kin inherits your assets. The alternative is per capita. By choosing per capita, your money only goes to your primary beneficiaries.

Here’s an example of how per capita might work.

Imagine a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. The daughter is the primary beneficiary on the grandmother’s retirement account, but the grandmother forgets to name a contingent beneficiary.

If the daughter dies before the grandmother and the daughter is still listed as the primary beneficiary when the grandmother dies, the money won’t go the granddaughter. The money will go through probate and the court would decide who receives the money. Had the grandmother selected per stirpes, the money would have gone straight to the granddaughter, even if she were not listed as a contingent beneficiary. When you choose per stirpes, the next of kin to your primary beneficiary (or your heir’s heirs) receive their share of your property.

This is how per capita works. Per capita ensures that your money goes to your primary beneficiaries only. Per capita is also typically the default option most retirement savers have in place right now.

Depending on how you want your inheritance handled, it’s easy to see how this could be a costly estate planning mistake.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 30, 2020)These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary

Ignoring Beneficiary Designations Is a Risky Business

Ignore beneficiary forms at your and your heirs’ own peril, especially when there are minor children, is the message from TAPintoChatham.com’s recent article “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?” The knee-jerk reaction is to name the spouse as a primary beneficiary and then name the minor children as contingent beneficiaries. However, this is not always the best way to deal with retirement assets.

Remember that retirement assets are different from taxable accounts. When distributions are made from retirement accounts, they are treated as Ordinary Income (OI) and are subject to the OI tax rate. Retirement plans have beneficiary forms, which overrule whatever your will documents may state. Because they have beneficiary forms, these accounts pass outside of your estate and are governed by their own rules and regulations.

Here are a few options for beneficiary designations when there are minors:

Name your spouse as the primary beneficiary and minor children as the contingent beneficiaries. This is the usual response (see above), but there is a problem. If the minor children inherit a retirement asset, they will need a guardian for that asset. The guardian named for their care and well-being in the will does not apply, because this asset passes outside of the estate. Therefore, the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to represent the child’s interest for this asset. That could be a paid stranger appointed by the court, until the child reaches the age of majority, usually 18 in most states.

Elect a guardian in the retirement plan beneficiary form. Some custodians have a section of their beneficiary form to choose a guardian for minor. Most forms, unfortunately, do not provide this option.

Make your estate the contingent beneficiary of the retirement account. While this would solve the problem of not having a guardian for the minor children, because it would kick the retirement plan into the estate, it may lead to adverse tax consequences. An estate does not have a measuring life, so the retirement asset would need to be fully distributed in five years.

Leave the assets to the minor children in a trust. This is the most effective means of leaving retirement assets to minor children without terrible tax consequences or needing to have the court appoint a stranger to oversee the child’s funds. Your attorney would either create a separate trust for the minor child or build a conduit trust under your will or a revocable trust to hold this specific asset. You would then change your beneficiary form to make said trust or sub-trusts for each minor child the contingent beneficiary of your retirement plan. This way you control who the guardian is for this asset for your minor child and are tax efficient.

Whichever way you decide to go, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine which is the best plan for your family.

Reference: TAPintoChatham.com (Sep. 8, 2109) “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?”