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Beneficiary Designation Mistakes to Avoid By Edward H. Adamsky

Remember that your Will or Trust only controls assets that are not controlled in some other way. Many of your assets pass by Beneficiary Designation rather than through the terms or your Will or Trust. The common ones are Life Insurance and Retirement Accounts. You can also name beneficiaries on bank accounts with the ITF designation (a misnomer as it stands for “In Trust For,” but is really just a beneficiary designation) and you can have your brokerage accounts Transfer on Death (TOD) to named beneficiaries.

Most people choose their spouse as primary and name their children as contingent beneficiaries. Some forms have a designation like “issue per stirpes” or “issue by right of representation.” Those mean the same thing using Latin or English. What they mean is that the assets will pass down your bloodline and be divided equally at each generation, among those of that generation. Sometimes folks are confused on who to name as a beneficiary or whether or not they should name one person or multiple people, and many people make bad mistakes when filling out the beneficiary designation forms.

One common mistake is to just name one beneficiary and assume that person will properly split the assets among family members. It might cause tax issues with retirement accounts, or discord if that family member did not properly share with others. If you name one child as a beneficiary on an account, then that account will legally belong to that child when you die. If that child were in the midst of a financial issue like divorce or bankruptcy, that child might not be able to share the assets with siblings even if she wanted to.

Sometimes people designate different beneficiaries for different accounts. For example, a mother might have three IRAs each with one of her three children named as beneficiary. Only if the three accounts were exactly equal in value when she died would the children benefit equally. If she had to spend some money and withdrew it from only one account, then the children will receive unequal amounts. This might cause fights among the children, especially if one of the children (as Agent under a Power of Attorney) made the decision to withdraw assets from only one of the three accounts.

You cannot override your beneficiary designations by terms in a Will. If you had life insurance and named your brother as beneficiary, a clause in your Will that said “I give my life insurance proceeds to my three children” would not work. The life insurance company will follow your directions on the beneficiary designation form and will not even look at your Will.

You should coordinate your beneficiary designations with your Will or Trust. If there is a reason to update your Will (such as the death of a family member) then you should update your beneficiary designations too. You should make a list with all of your assets that are controlled by beneficiary designation and be sure to update them all when there are changes in your life.