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Check Your Beneficiary Designations Now, Before Disaster Strikes

You should probably take one very important estate planning action as soon as you finish reading this.

Check the beneficiary designations for your:

  • bank accounts,

  • brokerage firm accounts,

  • tax-favored retirement accounts,

  • company benefit plans,

  • life insurance policies,

  • annuities, and

  • 529 college savings accounts.

If you have not yet turned in the forms to designate beneficiaries, do so today. If the forms are out of date, change them to reflect current reality before it’s too late.

If you need motivation, here are two real-life horror stories to light a fire under you.

Real-Life Horror Story 1

Dad failed to change the beneficiary designations for his Boeing Corporation pension benefits and life insurance after his divorce, so Dad’s former wife was still the named beneficiary.

Two months later, Dad died in a car crash. The Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the beneficiary designations trumped a state law that would have automatically disinherited the ex-wife. So, the ex-wife received the money, and the kids were handed the bills for an unsuccessful legal fight that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

Real-Life Horror Story 2

In another real-life case, the ex-spouse collected $400,000 from Dad’s company savings and investment plan even though the ex-spouse had specifically waived any interest in the plan under the divorce agreement.

Believing the divorce agreement was the last word on the subject, Dad failed to turn in the form to officially change the plan beneficiary from his ex-spouse to his daughter.

He died seven years after the divorce. The company plan document stipulated that beneficiaries could be changed only by submitting the required form.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the hideously outdated beneficiary designation trumped the divorce agreement. So, the ex-spouse received the $400,000, and the daughter received nothing.

The Disaster Avoidance Message

Divorce is not the only situation where failing to turn in or update beneficiary designation forms can cause heartache for your intended heirs—it’s just the most obvious situation.

For example, the same basic issue exists if you become disenchanted with an adult child who has decided to become a professional Frisbee golfer on top of marrying someone you cannot stand.

Or you might now decide to leave more of your life insurance benefits to an adult child who just had twins and less to your childless offspring.

You get the idea. When things in your life change, you may need to refresh your beneficiary designations.

Avoids Probate

Another big reason to designate beneficiaries: it avoids probate. Also, consider naming contingent beneficiaries. These are individuals who stand in line behind your primary beneficiaries.


Do not rely on a will or living trust document to override outdated beneficiary designations. As a general rule, whoever is named on the most recent beneficiary form (which may not be nearly recent enough) will get the money automatically when you die—regardless of what other documents might say.


Check your designations at least once a year or whenever significant life events occur.

It usually takes only a few minutes to conduct a checkup and make any needed changes. Often you can access the necessary forms online. But if you wait, it could be too late, as illustrated by the real-life horror stories presented earlier. Don’t wait!

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