Beneficiary Designations, again.

I've written about beneficiary designations before, but they continue to be a source of conflict I'm seeing for clients. It's not just life insurance, either.

Think about your assets. Bank account, stock account, CD's, IRA's, 401k.  Probably, without thinking, when you set each of these up you had to fill out all sorts of questions. As I'm sitting here, I have no idea who I've named for all my account beneficiaries, and I do this for a living, so I'm guessing most of you do not either.

If truly you have never named anyone ever, then the rules are relatively simple. Whatever your assets are pass under your will, or under the laws of the state where you live if you have no will to your heirs. Unless, the contract for your account says differently. Want to cut out your no good kid? Policy might not let you. Really hate your spouse? Account contract might give it all to them. See why this is important?

Where it gets really sticky is if you try and change things, and something happens, and you don't get it done.

Example:

Wanda Worker has been with her company for 30 years, and has built up a large retirement with stock options that have vested.  She has two children, one who is in the pen for attempting to harm her pet parakeets, and another who is a nun working with disabled children. She fills out the form to change her beneficiary designation on her retirement account and her life insurance to her nun daughter, and on the way to the mailbox to send it off has a heart attack and dies.

Answer:

What happens? Per the usual, it depends.

If left alone, its distributed pursuant to the policy rules. If Wanda was married, usually goes all to the husband. If she was not, split between the kids. There are two different theories out there that could change the result, whoever. In Texas, for life insurance and in limited other circumstances, courts have held that if someone "substantially complied" with the rules to change, its good enough.  Other accounts or policies require "strict compliance" which means if its not done right, sorry.  The problem with the "substantial compliance" standard is it puts someone else in the position to determine another's wishes.

In our above example, at first glance, Wanda did everything she could do to change her beneficiary designation. It wasn't her fault that she had a heart attack, right? Well, why didn't Wanda do it the day, week, month...before? She went to the nail salon instead. Is that doing everything she possibly could have done?

Take away:


You simply cannot be too careful with this stuff. Tomorrow is too late. However, should you find yourself, a family member, or other involved in a situation like this, or where one family member is trying to take advantage of another, thankfully there are options to make it right.

For an example of a case that played out like this, see THIS CASE. Think the result is fair or unfair? Let me know. 

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