Naming Beneficiaries - Do It, and Keep Them Current

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what happen when 401K leave blank on beneficiary

Nothing unless you die, and it's not covered in your will or other documents. Then the state's intestate code takes effect. Each state has a law for how the estates of those who die intestate will be divvied up. These laws were typically made generations ago, and the societal assumptions that they make are no longer valid. Furthermore, by failing to name a beneficiary, you are passing up on the chance to avoid probate, the legal process by which your estate is gotten to your heirs. Everybody has a probate, and fees are levied on the basis of the value of the assets that are in probate. For many assets, such as bank accounts and investment accounts, avoiding probate is as easy as naming someone a beneficiary, and any accounts where you have names someone a beneficiary go to them immediately upon proof of your death, outside of probate.

This is important because your heirs do not have access to those assets until probate is settled. This is a minimum of nine months, and in large complex cases can be a couple of decades. Probate fees are about seven percent per year, and until probate is settled, they might get to live in the house you left - but they can't sell the house if they need to move, or if, for instance, all of your assets are tied up in probate and they can't make the payments on the loan.

Most people do not understand the naming of beneficiaries, and never give it a second thought. Many times this translates to the first spouse still being the beneficiary of a policy of life insurance, when you divorced without children fifteen years ago, and now your second spouse has two young children to bring up without you, and without your life insurance proceeds. Even if the first spouse is generous enough to disclaim the money, since you obviously did not name your second spouse as a beneficiary, the money now has to go through probate.

Contingent beneficiaries are also important. Primary beneficiaries sometimes predecease you, or perish in the same accident. One common (and often worthwhile) tactic is to name spouses as primary beneficiaries, children as contingent beneficiaries. Many accounts allow the naming of secondary contingent beneficiaries as well. One approach is to name them individually, another to name them as a class ("all natural and adopted children of John and Jane Smith"), and two ways of accounting for their as yet unknown numbers of people who may be born later, "per stirpes" which is by branch, and "per capita" which is by head.

Every time you have a major life event, such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or the death of someone who is one of your beneficiaries, you should make a habit of going through all of your accounts and making certain the beneficiary designations are up to date with the new developments. Of course, if you have trusts and the like, this is also an ongoing requirement for them, and trusts are even better for avoiding unnecessary estate complications.

Caveat Emptor


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This page contains a single entry by Dan Melson published on February 23, 2006 10:01 AM.

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