Beneficiary Designation for Retirement Accounts

Learn what to consider when determining who will inherit your assets

Senior couple shaking hands with consultant after discussing their retirement accounts
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Building assets for retirement may seem like challenge enough, but designating beneficiaries to inherit those assets can bring an entirely new set of considerations into the mix. While it may seem simple to use the first name that comes to mind—a spouse, a child, or a sibling—on the beneficiary designation form, you should know the consequences first.

Here's a guide to what's involved.

Naming Primary and Contingent Beneficiaries

Most retirement plans, annuities, and life insurance policies let you decide what should become of your assets in the event of your demise. They do this by asking you to designate beneficiaries.

The primary beneficiary (or beneficiaries) inherit first. If they are dead or if they die with you, your assets would instead go to any secondary beneficiaries you have designated. These secondary beneficiaries are often referred to as contingent beneficiaries on account forms.

To designate beneficiaries, you will need the full legal name of the individual. You will also need to determine what percentage of your assets will go to each beneficiary if you have more than one listed.

Beneficiaries can include spouses, children, and other relatives. Alternatively, they can include friends, trusts, charities, and institutions. Because your pet can't sign legal documents or legally own property, you usually can't name them as a beneficiary. However, you can establish a trust for the pet with the trust being the beneficiary.

Overriding Your Will

Be aware that beneficiary designations generally become active immediately after death and override any information regarding inherited assets provided in your will. That means these assets will not have to go through probate. Probate is a legal proceeding that can be time-consuming and possibly very expensive.

This immediate nature also means that you need to ensure that your current beneficiary designations reflect your most recent wishes because your will cannot override them. It's a good idea to review your designated beneficiaries every year, for all your accounts. It's also important to update your beneficiary information after any major life change such as marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child.

Taxes on Inherited Retirement Accounts

Spouses can generally inherit assets from one another without generating estate taxes. Also, in the case of retirement accounts, they avoid being forced into taking mandatory taxable payouts. However, if the inheriting spouse has reached age 70.5, normal retirement account distribution rules apply. It is best to check with your tax advisor for details, as the mandatory distribution rules are complex.

Heirs other than spouses, though, may face some tax consequences. Loading too many assets on to some heirs may make those heirs' estates liable to pay federal estate tax. As of 2019, these taxes can be assessed on estates that exceed $11.4 million. Also, some states will assess state tax on an inheritance above a specific value. Keeping your potential heirs informed of your intentions allows them to plan accordingly.

Requirements to Cash out the Retirement Fund

Many types of retirement plans, including 401(k)s and traditional individual retirement accounts (IRAs), will force beneficiaries to take the money immediately in a lump sum payment and pay income taxes on the full amount. Other accounts will require taxable distributions every year in amounts that are based on Internal Revenue Service life expectancy tables. Roth IRAs are exempt because they were funded with after-tax dollars—the creator had already paid taxes on the money in them.

One way to avoid taxes on your inheritance altogether is to designate a charity or a non-profit group, such as a university foundation, as your heir. If you do that, there's no tax on the transfer of funds. The future use of your money is also protected.

Creating a Trust for Minors or Others Heirs

Underage children, a group that may include anyone up to age 21 in some states, cannot directly inherit assets from an annuity, a retirement plan, or a life insurance policy. Examples of two types of trusts created for minors or others include a testamentary trust and a revocable living trust. Consult with an attorney, if necessary, to set up trusts for minor children. The trust you create then can be named in your beneficiary list.

You may also want to create trusts for beneficiaries with mental disabilities if they are unable to handle their own affairs. This type of trust is often referred to as a special needs trust.

In summary, there are many important considerations to make when choosing beneficiaries for a retirement account, annuity, or life insurance policy. Make sure you take the time to review your selections carefully to make sure your wishes are up to date and to help your loved ones avoid future headaches.