So much focus in estate planning is on avoiding taxes and probate court that many people overlook some simple steps that will make sure money from a life insurance policy or retirement plan ends up with their beneficiary of choice.
Insurance policies and retirement plans are specifically designed to allow an easy transfer of assets to dependents and survivors, says Thomas D. Murphy Jr., a probate attorney and senior partner at Murphy, McCoubrey & Auth in Massachusetts. Yet, simple mistakes often thwart the best of intentions, Murphy says.
"In more than 20 years of practice, I've seen recurring mistakes in naming beneficiaries," says Murphy, the founder of FamilyFiles, an Internet company that helps people store their vital personal records online.
Many of those mistakes are made by people whose disbursement of assets should be relatively simple, Murphy says.
"Assigning beneficiaries is something (people) often do their first day on the job when they are going over benefits with a new employer and they don't realize the importance of their choices."
Murphy points to several common pitfalls in designating beneficiaries:
Naming your estate as the beneficiary. This can undo certain policy or retirement plan advantages. For example, insurance benefits are generally not subject to claims from creditors, but an estate is. If your estate is the beneficiary, your insurance benefits may no longer be exempt. Also, naming an estate as beneficiary will result in the liquidation of an Individual Retirement Account, with taxes becoming due immediately. This can deprive a surviving spouse of potential continued tax-free growth. Check with a tax expert or lawyer before naming your estate as a beneficiary.
Failure to name a secondary beneficiary. If your primary beneficiary precedes you in death and you have not named a secondary beneficiary, your insurance policy or retirement plan will bounce back to your estate. In that event the money will be distributed according to your will, or if you have no will, according to your state's laws.
Naming minor children. Generally, insurance companies, pension plans and retirement accounts will not pay death benefits to minors. Benefits are held until a court-approved guardian or trustee is appointed. If you want to provide for minors, name a trustee or establish a trust. Failure to do so will mean the court will name one for you.
Overlooking tax ramifications. Many people have misconceptions about what is and isn't taxed. Life insurance benefits are generally free of federal income tax. "In general, spouses are the only party that can continue to defer taxes in tax-deferred accounts, and in my experience this is usually done by rolling it into another tax-deferred account of similar type," Murphy notes. Consult a tax professional to find out the tax ramifications when naming beneficiaries.
Failing to update records. People often neglect to make changes to their insurance policies or retirement accounts when their family situation changes. "I had an instance recently with a second wife and two young children and the policies still designated the first wife," Murphy says. "Even in instances when a will indicates otherwise, designated beneficiaries in policies and insurance plans usually supercede any other indications. And generally, there is no satisfactory recourse recent case law has ruled in favor of a first wife in such instances." So make it a habit to review your insurance policies and retirement plan records.