401k Beneficiary Designations: Getting the Right Assets to the Right People

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This often overlooked detail can cause many probelems in the future.

The Spouse Is the Automatic Beneficiary for Married PeopleA federal law, the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), governs most pensions and retirement accounts. Under ERISA, if the owner of a retirement account is married when he or she dies, his or her spouse is automatically entitled to receive 50 percent of the money, regardless of what the beneficiary designation says.

If another person is the designated beneficiary, the spouse will receive 50 percent of the assets and the designated beneficiary will receive the other 50 percent. A spouse always receives half the assets of an ERISA-governed account unless he or she has completed a Spousal Waiver and another person or entity (such as an estate or trust) is listed as a beneficiary.

A spouse can forgo his or her right to 50 percent of the account by properly executing a Spousal Waiver. However, generally a Spousal Waiver is not permissible under ERISA unless the spouse is at least 35 years old, depending on the type of retirement plan.

These rules can cause problems when the owner of a retirement account remarries. Often, the owner will change his or her beneficiary designation upon divorce and name the children as the designated beneficiaries. If the owner later remarries, though, 50 percent of the retirement assets will go to the new spouse instead of the children, even if the new spouse is not added as a beneficiary.

Beneficiary Designation Trumps Will

If the owner of a 401k is single when he or she dies, the assets go to the designated beneficiary, no matter what his or her will states. In addition, the assets will be distributed to the designated beneficiary regardless of any other agreements — even court orders.

For example, assume a man’s wife is the designated beneficiary of his 401k. The couple gets divorced and the man does not change his beneficiary designation, but the woman waives her right to receive any retirement assets as part of the divorce agreement. If the man dies without changing his beneficiary designation and without remarrying, his former wife will still receive the retirement assets, even though the divorce decrees declares that she should not.

Periodic review beneficiary forms is recommended and may justify consulting an expert to prevent disputes in the future.

Please comment or call to discuss how this affects you and your employees.

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