Estate Planning

Choosing Retirement Account Beneficiaries Requires Some Thought

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Geoff Hoatson

Attorney / Principal

While the execution of wills requires formalities like witnesses and a notary, the reality is that most property passes to heirs through other, less formal means.

Many bank and investments accounts, as well as real estate, have joint owners who take ownership automatically at the death of the primary owner. Other banks and investment companies offer payable on death accounts that permit owners to name the person or people who will receive them when the owners die. Life insurance, of course, permits the owner to name beneficiaries.

All of these types of ownership and beneficiary designations permit these accounts and types of property to avoid probate, meaning that they will not be governed by the terms of a will. When taking advantage of these simplified procedures, owners need to be sure that the decisions they make are consistent with their overall estate planning. It’s not unusual for a will to direct that an estate be equally divided among the decedent’s children, but to find that because of joint accounts or beneficiary designations the estate is distributed totally unequally, or even to non-family members, such as new boyfriends and girlfriends.

It’s also important to review beneficiary designations every few years to make sure that they are still correct. An out-of-date designation may leave property to an ex-spouse, to ex-girlfriends or -boyfriends, and to people who died before the owner. All of these can thoroughly undermine an estate plan and leave a legacy of resentment that most people would prefer to avoid.

These concerns are heightened when dealing with retirement plans, whether IRAs, SEPs or 401(k) plans, because the choice of beneficiary can have significant tax implications. These types of retirement plans benefit from deferred taxation in that the income deposited into them as well as the earnings on the investments are not taxed until the funds are withdrawn. In addition, owners may withdraw funds based more or less on their life expectancy, so the younger the owner the smaller the annual required distribution.  Further, in most cases, withdrawals do not have to begin until after the owner reaches age 70 1/2. However, this is not always the case for inherited IRAs.

Following are some of the rules and concerns when designating retirement account beneficiaries:

In short, while wills are important, in large part because they name a personal representative to take charge of your estate and they name guardians for minor children, they are only a small part of the picture. A comprehensive plan needs to include consideration of beneficiary designations, especially those for retirement plans.

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