Proper Beneficiary Designations

June 11, 2004

We have been discussing the importance of proper beneficiary designations in wills and living trusts. Generally, the most frequent type of designation seen is, assuming no surviving spouse, “to my children, in equal shares, per stirpes.” This means that a distribution will be made to the surviving family members when a beneficiary dies before the testator or settlor of a trust. But what about beneficiary designations for non-probate assets such as life insurance, annuities, 401K’s and IRA’s? The answer is that equal attention must be paid to the beneficiary selection for these types of assets as with wills and trusts. The per stirpes designation on a financial institution’s or insurance company’s beneficiary designation form is acceptable. Some issues to be aware of include: per stirpes (for example, “to my son, A, per stirpes”) may not avoid the appointment of a guardian by a court if a minor does inherit as a contingent or designated beneficiary of a non-probate asset. A simple solution: “To my son, A, per stirpes, but in the event such issue who inherit shall be minor (s) then said minor’s beneficiary share shall be paid to a custodian under the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act until the maximum age permitted by law and thereafter directly to the beneficiary. The custodian, if none, shall be designated by the executor or administrator of my estate.” If there is no per stirpes or per capita designation on a beneficiary designation form, the proceeds of the policy or retirement account will be payable to the testator’s estate, and be distributed according to the terms of his or her will, or by intestacy, if no will exists. This may create unintended results and unintended beneficiaries. If a trust is named the beneficiary of a IRA, and the testator later revokes the trust, care must be taken to change the beneficiary designation form, as well. It is also recommended that a beneficiary designation form be completed in duplicate, with one copy returned to the owner of the account or policy. This avoids the potential problem of a misplaced or lost designation form by a financial institution.