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Tell Your Beneficiaries about Your Accounts and Policies

As Year’s End approaches, now is a great time to review your retirement account(s) and insurance beneficiaries to ensure your heirs receive a fair share of your wealth and that your invested assets go where you want them to when you die.

If you have a proper will or estate plan in place, you will likely be in good shape. You may also want to review the beneficiary forms you filled out years ago for your IRA, your workplace retirement plan, and your life insurance policy to give you even more confidence about the eventual transfer of your wealth.

One concern still remains, though. You have to tell your heirs that these documents exist.

That does not mean sharing all the details. If you have decided that some of your heirs will one day get more of your wealth than others, you can keep quiet about that decision as long as you live. You do want to tell your heirs the essential details; they should know that you have a will and/or an estate plan, and they should understand that you have named beneficiaries for your retirement accounts, your investment accounts, and your insurance policies.

Over time, you must review your beneficiary decisions. In fact, you may want to revisit them. We suggest that you review your original IRA beneficiary form to find out if changes need to be made.

Here is a quick look at how beneficiary decisions play out for a few of the most popular retirement accounts.

Employer-sponsored retirement plans. These are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which rules that if the late accountholder was married, the surviving spouse is entitled to at least 50% of the account assets. That applies even if another person has been designated as the primary beneficiary. In such a case, the spouse and the primary beneficiary may split the assets 50/50. (The spouse can actually waive his or her right to that 50% of the invested assets through a Spousal Waiver form. A spouse usually has to be older than 35 for this to be allowed). These rules also apply for other types of ERISA-governed retirement assets, such as pension plan accounts and corporate-owned life insurance.

If a participant in one of these retirement accounts remarries, the new husband or wife is entitled to 50% of those assets at death. While a plan participant may name a child as the beneficiary of a retirement account after a divorce, remarriage will leave only 50% of those assets with that child when the accountholder dies, rather than 100%, unless the new spouse waives his or her right to receiving 50% of the assets.

IRAs. Unlike an employer-sponsored retirement plan, a spouse does not have automatic beneficiary rights with an IRA because IRAs are governed under state laws rather than ERISA. One interesting estate planning aspect of an IRA rollover is that the owner of the new IRA has the freedom to name anyone as the primary beneficiary.

Life insurance policies. The death proceeds go to the named beneficiary; occasionally, a beneficiary may not know a policy exists.

Recently, 60 Minutes did an expose on the insurance industry. Major insurers had withheld more than $7.5 billion in life insurance death proceeds from beneficiaries. They had a contractual reason for doing so: the beneficiaries had never stepped forward to file claims.

The deceased policyholders had either failed to tell their heirs about the policies or misplaced the copies and the paperwork. Their heirs did not know (or know how) to claim the money. As a result, the insurance proceeds lay unclaimed for years, and the insurers only now feel pressure to pay out the benefits.

Update your beneficiaries; let your heirs know how vital these forms are. Make sure that your beneficiary decisions on retirement, brokerage and bank accounts, college savings plans, and life insurance policies suit your wealth transfer objectives.

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