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Designating Beneficiaries

Designating beneficiaries for your company retirement plan, life insurance policies, and other assets might seem like a no-brainer. Chances are you would like those near and dear to you to inherit any money you've accumulated during your lifetime, so making sure that happens should be as simple as writing their names on the appropriate forms, right? Well, if only it were that simple. Naming beneficiaries can be more complicated than you might think, and it's a decision that may have significant repercussions for your loved ones.

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Know the Basics

You can name almost anyone, or anything, as your beneficiary, including individuals, charities, and trusts. However, it is important to note that children under the age of majority—18 or 21, depending on the state in which you live—cannot be named as beneficiaries of life insurance policies, retirement plans, or annuities. If a beneficiary is not designated, assets will have to go through probate, which can be a lengthy and costly process. Also, be aware that beneficiary designations will override bequests you've made in your will, so please do not rely on your will to sort out these issues. This leads to our second point.

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Keep Your Designations up to Date

It would be advisable to review your beneficiary designations on a regular schedule, ideally as part of an annual review of your finances. Major life events, such as a marriage, a divorce, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one may require that you make changes to your designations. Don’t procrastinate on this, as it may end up affecting others' lives.  Moreover, you'll also want to review your designations if you or your employer have recently switched retirement-plan or insurance providers. You should not assume that the beneficiaries you specified with your previous provider will automatically carry over to the new one.

Bear in Mind the Tax Consequences

If you decide to designate someone other than your spouse as the beneficiary of your company retirement-plan assets, he or she may have to take mandatory distributions from that plan and, in turn, pay taxes on the money. Your spouse, on the other hand, will be able to roll over your retirement-plan assets into his or her own individual retirement account (IRA) and won't have to pay taxes until distributions begin. There can also be estate taxes to keep in mind if you name a beneficiary other than your spouse.  Needless to say, it would be in your best interest to speak with a tax advisor or someone who specializes in estate planning to go over possible tax ramifications.

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Be Specific

It pays to be as specific as possible when designating beneficiaries. Most beneficiary designation forms allow you to name multiple primary and contingent beneficiaries and to specify what percentage of assets you'd like distributed to each upon your death. For example, you can state: “I hereby designate my wife, Jane Smith, as primary beneficiary” or “I hereby designate my two children, John Smith and Allison Smith, as contingent beneficiaries, with the proceeds to be divided equally among them.” Of course, it is recommended that you discuss these important matters with your family members beforehand, so that they are prepared and know what to expect.

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You Can Use a Legal Trust as a Beneficiary

What if you are in a situation where you can’t (or you don’t want to) name a person as a beneficiary? You can use what is called a legal trust. A trust means that you don’t leave the money directly to the beneficiary, but to an institution (such as a bank) who manages it for the beneficiary. This is especially useful when minor children or disabled relatives are involved. A trust can be revocable (you can change the provisions later), or irrevocable (can’t be undone).

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