In my experience, one of the most common areas of confusion in wealth and estate planning is beneficiary designations and their importance in many key areas.
Many important assets in an individual’s portfolio often pass at that person’s death by beneficiary designation and not by that person’s will or trust. Common examples of these types of assets include life insurance, retirement plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and annuities. For many, these assets represent a significant portion of their overall assets, yet the beneficiary designations for these assets are sometimes not carefully considered.
Above all, it is very important to recognize that your will or revocable living trust does not control or “override” the beneficiary designations. For example, a parent’s will may direct assets to a trust for minor children if both parents are deceased. If the parent’s life insurance designation names the children directly, then the life insurance proceeds will “miss” the trust entirely, thus potentially requiring a conservatorship for the proceeds until the children reach age 18. While the children may legally be adults at age 18, they may not have sufficient maturity and experience to properly manage large sums of money (think expensive red sports cars here). The better approach would have been for the life insurance beneficiary designation to name the children’s trust as the beneficiary under the life insurance policy upon the death of the surviving parent.
It’s also very important that you understand the tax consequences of your beneficiary designations. For example, if you designate your spouse as your beneficiary under your IRA, your spouse will be able to take advantage of a tax-free rollover of the IRA account into his or her own IRA. On the other hand, if a beneficiary other than a spouse is designated, then the beneficiary will have to take mandatory distributions from the IRA, which in turn will be subject to income taxes. In addition, while the estate tax is in currently in flux, assets passing by beneficiary designation are generally subject to the estate tax in the same manner as any other asset.
The best approach is to carefully consider and integrate beneficiary designations as part of a well-designated estate plan.