Naming beneficiaries can be challenging, often involving terminology that requires familiarity with legal and tax rules (not to mention the specific forms each provider uses). Selecting which assets your loved ones should receive also carries the emotional burden that comes with end-of-life planning.
Insight into common mistakes can help make the process easier for yourself — as well as make life easy for your beneficiaries. Here are five pitfalls to avoid.
1. Not Choosing a Beneficiary
Ignoring beneficiary designations is the path of least resistance. When life gets busy, it's an easy thing to move down the priority list. However, failing to name beneficiaries can be a problem when it's time to disperse your assets.
Among other risks, assets may go to your estate after death if there are no beneficiaries on file. The assets then go through probate, which is a time-consuming and sometimes expensive process. Your heirs may also lose the ability to take advantage of tax rules that allow them to delay distributions.
Tip: Complete beneficiary forms as soon as you get them to direct where assets will go after your death. If you need to, you can change your selections later.
2. Naming Minors
Parents and grandparents often want to leave money to children. While those funds can certainly be helpful, naming a minor (under the age of 18, in many cases) may have unintended consequences.
Minors often cannot own financial accounts. Depending on the kind of account and the age of the minor, the courts may arrange for an adult to handle whatever the minor inherits; once in their hands, it can be impossible to ensure your plans for the inheritance are honored.
Additionally, when children reach the age of 18, they typically gain access to all of their inherited funds at once. Some 18-year-olds may not be ready to manage an inheritance and could feel tempted to spend the money quickly.
Tip: If you want to leave money to a minor, discuss the topic with their parents. Explore possibilities with an estate planning attorney, who may be able to establish a trust or 529 savings plan that controls distributions.
3. Stale Beneficiaries
Relationships and situations change over time. Periodically revisit beneficiary choices to verify that your money will go where you would like. Whether beneficiaries change due to death, divorce, birth or other circumstances, it's important to update your documents as life happens.
Tip: Review your beneficiary choices at least annually. If there is a change in your situation, make updates promptly to avoid having assets go to the wrong person.
4. Naming Your Estate
Naming your estate as a beneficiary can be similar to having no beneficiary at all. Any assets go to your estate — from there, they typically become part of the probate process. Those assets are also available to creditors as the estate settles debts. Always consult with an attorney before going this route, as there may be a better way to protect your assets.
Tip: Make proactive decisions about who should receive assets after death. Ask an estate planning attorney if it makes sense to name your estate as your beneficiary.
5. Ignoring Contingencies
While naming beneficiaries, it can be hard to imagine younger heirs passing away before you — but it is possible. What happens if you have two children and one of them dies? Should the deceased child's family (your grandchildren, for example) get half of the assets, or should everything go to the remaining child? It's critical to set up your beneficiaries in a way that can adapt to these scenarios.
Tip: Consider adding contingent beneficiaries. Discuss terms such as "per capita" and "per stirpes" with an attorney to determine how assets should pass if beneficiaries predecease you.
Chart Your Own Course
You have the opportunity to provide a legacy to your loved ones after death. With careful planning and ongoing monitoring, you can ensure that assets pass in the way you want. Review your beneficiaries, and if you have questions about how to accomplish specific goals, an estate planning attorney can help you arrange things in a way that's right for you and your heirs.