Most of us lead hectic lives, but it is important to take time to designate or update beneficiaries for all your assets as part of an estate plan. Notably, you should be aware that designations for retirement plans and life insurance policies supersede beneficiary dispositions in your will. Keeping that in mind, here are seven practical suggestions.

  1. Don’t leave the beneficiary lines blank. If you don’t name specific beneficiaries for your accounts, or if you name your estate as the beneficiary, your heirs will likely end up in probate court. This can be both time-consuming and costly. If assets go to your estate, they are subject to creditors. A better option is to choose individual beneficiaries and list them on the forms.
  2. Use trusts for beneficiaries who are minors. In some states, minors face restrictions until they turn age 18 or 21. If you designate a minor as a beneficiary, a court will appoint a guardian to manage the funds until the child reaches the age of majority. Alternatively, you might establish a trust to handle the funds and name the trust as the beneficiary. Thus, you maintain control now and provide asset protection for minors when you’re gone.
  3. Understand the key rules. Other than your spouse, beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and insurance contracts will override your will. If you want someone besides your spouse to inherit assets, your spouse must sign a written waiver. Without the waiver, a non-spouse beneficiary designation will be invalid upon your death.
  4. Inform your beneficiaries. Do not keep your designations a secret. Also, let them know where to find important documents and contact information for your professional advisors. On the other end, make sure your advisors have the vital contact information for your beneficiaries.
  5. Double-check names and numbers. Make sure they are spelled correctly and that figures are accurate. This is particularly important when listing Social Security numbers and telephone numbers and addresses.
  6. Use percentages instead of dollar amounts. For example, suppose you have an IRA worth $100,000, and you designate a niece as beneficiary of $75,000 of that amount. If the IRA drops in value to $75,000 or below at your death, your niece is in line to receive the entire amount—any remaining beneficiaries receive zero. Perhaps a better way to meet your objectives is to give your niece 75% of the overall account value.
  7. Name contingent beneficiaries. If your primary beneficiary has died and you haven’t named a replacement, the assets would go to your contingent (or “secondary”) beneficiaries. Without a contingent beneficiary, the assets are transferred to your estate (see above). Avoid potential problems by indicating contingent beneficiaries in appropriate places.

Don’t just stuff all the paperwork in a desk or drawer somewhere and forget about it. Review your beneficiary designations periodically to ensure that they remain up-to-date. Finally, make whatever revisions are needed to keep your beneficiary designations current.