Common pitfalls to avoid with beneficiary designations

When Californians get a life insurance policy or open a retirement account, one of the first steps is to fill out a beneficiary designation. This specifies who the assets should go to when the creator dies. However, it is not uncommon for people to forget to update them after significant life changes.

This is particularly important because a will or a trust cannot override a beneficiary designation. If the form is not updated, the assets could go to an unintended beneficiary. One man had been divorced for 15 years when he learned that a 401(k) from a job he left long ago still listed his wife as the primary beneficiary. Some people may have two, three or more of these accounts if they’ve had several different jobs.

People should also ensure that they have a plan in case they outlive beneficiaries. One woman named her three adult children as the beneficiaries on her IRA, which was worth over $1 million at her death. One of the children died before her, so the two surviving children split the total. However, she had not specified whether her grandchildren, the children of the one who died, were supposed to inherit their parent’s share. This landed the family in bitter litigation. Regularly reviewing beneficiary designations and other estate planning papers can help prevent this.

Californians may want to work with an attorney when creating or reviewing an estate plan. They might want to discuss their goals and concerns regarding their family and the estate plan and how to best address them. For example, while instructions in a trust do not take precedence over beneficiary designations, the beneficiary of IRAs and other accounts could be a trust, and there may be benefits in some cases to doing this.