Published Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at: 7:00 AM EST
Quick: Who are the beneficiaries of your retirement plan, life insurance policies, and investment accounts? Many people don’t remember whom they named as a beneficiary or are uncertain. But it’s important to know, especially if your circumstances have changed since you completed the original paperwork.
You probably carefully considered whom to designate as beneficiaries of your financial accounts and life policies when you initially established them. But you may have shoved the documents into a drawer and forgotten all about them.
Suppose your family situation has changed. Maybe you have remarried and you have children from an earlier union. Do you still want your former spouse to inherit anything? Should your new spouse be named as a beneficiary? Aging, death, divorce, and other life-events, including the birth of a child or a job-switch, make it wise to periodically review beneficiary choices and ensure your assets go to the people you want to benefit most.
One reason it’s so important to get beneficiary designations right is that when you name a beneficiary on your retirement accounts and life insurance policies, those assets will be transferred without going through probate or facing other complications. Moreover, the designations for financial accounts and insurance policies trump whatever it may say in your will. So, even if you change your will to cut out an estranged relative, that person still could benefit unless the beneficiary designations also are changed. And if there are discrepancies, the matter could end up in court—probably the last thing you would want.
Furthermore, getting the beneficiaries right may affect estate taxes. For instance, if you name your spouse as the beneficiary of your 401(k) and IRAs, those accounts won’t be included in your taxable estate (although the assets eventually could be subject to estate tax when your spouse dies).
Another money-saving idea that might surface from reviewing your beneficiaries: If you have more than one child and intend to divide your IRA proceeds evenly, you may be able to reduce taxes owed by splitting your account. For example, if you have three children, you can split an IRA into three individual IRAs, naming one child as beneficiary of each new IRA. As a result, your children can take distributions from their inherited IRAs based on their longer individual life expectancies, not yours.
Finally, if you name a charity as an account beneficiary, the asset will pass to the charity tax-free. In addition, your estate will be entitled to a charitable deduction, which may reduce or eliminate tax liability.
For these and other reasons, it’s crucial to get beneficiary designations right, and to revise them when necessary as your circumstances change. Going to the trouble of regularly reviewing your designations could be time well spent.
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