There have been many cases of retirement account owners who have been divorced and remarried but failed to update their beneficiary designations.
If you forget, you may find that your designated beneficiary isn’t who you want it to be. That can frequently be the case in the event of a divorce, remarriage or if new children or grandchildren were welcomed into the family since your retirement plan account was started. If you named a charity as your beneficiary years ago, it may no longer exist.
It is good if you are reviewing your estate plan regularly. However, remember that retirement accounts aren’t part of your estate and aren’t governed by the provisions of your will, so it is important to keep these retirement documents updated.
Retirement account beneficiary designations are often neglected: they don’t get the attention they need!
Failing to update beneficiary designations can be very frustrating for the family. They’re the ones who will need to go to court to get a legal determination of the true beneficiary. The judge’s decision may not be what the deceased would have wished.
There can also be an issue if some children are named as beneficiaries, but the document isn't updated to include those who were born after the initial designation. That’s why you should update your beneficiary designation right after any change in family status—and review it periodically, so they never are out-of-date or incorrect. You should always have contingent beneficiaries as well.
Another option is to draft customized beneficiary designations to address "what-if" situations.
If you don’t name a beneficiary, the beneficiary may be determined by federal or state law, or by the plan document that governs your retirement accounts. For qualified plans like profit-sharing plans, 401(k)s, and money purchase pension plans, federal regulations automatically designate the spouse of the account owner as the beneficiary. The spouse has to approve of any other designation, and this must be in writing and notarized. If the retirement account owner is single, her estate may be the default beneficiary.
An IRA plan's documents also provide a default designation, if the designated beneficiary predeceases the IRA owner. The default options vary among IRA custodians and trustees. While the default options rid any administrative responsibilities from account owners, they may not reflect their preferences. As a result, account owners should review the plan document and be certain that they update their beneficiary designations regularly.
Many IRA plan documents have default beneficiary options, so if you designate two people as your beneficiaries and one predeceases you, the share that belonged to the deceased beneficiary automatically goes to the surviving beneficiary. If you have a customized designation, you can instruct how that portion would be distributed, instead of having it default to the surviving beneficiary.
Making a proper beneficiary designation is a crucial component of your estate planning. Be sure to talk to a qualified estate planning attorney about your beneficiary designations.
Reference: Investopedia (2018) “The Importance of Updating Retirement Account Beneficiaries”