Life insurance has long been recognized as a useful way to provide for your heirs and loved ones when you die. Naming your policy's beneficiaries should be a relatively simple task. However, there are several situations that can easily lead to unintended and adverse consequences you may want to avoid.
Not Naming a Beneficiary
The most obvious mistake you can make is failing to name a beneficiary of your life insurance policy. But simply naming your spouse or child as beneficiary may not suffice. It is conceivable that you and your spouse could die together, or that your named beneficiary may die before you do. If the beneficiaries you designated are not living at your death, the insurance company may pay the death proceeds to your estate, which can lead to other potential problems.
Death Benefit Paid to Your Estate
If your life insurance benefit is paid to your estate, several undesired issues may arise. First, the insurance proceeds likely become subject to probate, which may delay the payment to your heirs. Second, life insurance that is part of your probate estate is subject to claims of your probate creditors. That means your heirs have to wait to receive their share of the insurance until your creditors have satisfied their claims out of those proceeds first.
Naming primary, secondary, and final beneficiaries may avoid having the proceeds ultimately paid to your estate. If the primary beneficiary dies before you do, then the secondary or alternate beneficiaries receive the proceeds. And if the secondary beneficiaries are unavailable to receive the death benefit, you can name a final beneficiary, such as a charity, to receive the insurance proceeds.
Naming a Minor Child as Beneficiary
Unintended consequences may arise if your named beneficiary is a minor. Insurance companies will rarely pay life insurance proceeds directly to a minor. Typically, the court appoints a guardian — a potentially costly and time-consuming process — to handle the proceeds until the minor beneficiary reaches the age of majority according to state law.
If you want the life insurance proceeds to be paid for the benefit of a minor, consider creating a trust that names the minor as beneficiary. Then the trust manages and pays the proceeds from the insurance according to the terms and conditions you set out in the trust document. Consult with an estate attorney to decide on the course that works best for your situation.
Not Specifying Per Capita or Per Stirpes Designations
It's not uncommon to name multiple beneficiaries to share in the life insurance proceeds. But what happens if one of the beneficiaries dies before you do? Do you want the share of the deceased beneficiary to be added to the shares of the surviving beneficiaries, or do you want the share to pass to the deceased beneficiary's children? That's the difference between per stirpes and per capita.
You don't have to use the legal terms in directing what is to happen if a beneficiary dies before you do, but it's important to indicate on the insurance beneficiary designation form how you want the share to pass if a beneficiary predeceases you. Per stirpes (by branch) means the share of a deceased beneficiary passes to the next generation in line. Per capita (by head) provides that the share of the deceased beneficiary is added to the shares of the surviving beneficiaries so that each receives an equal share.
Disqualifying a Beneficiary from Government Assistance
A beneficiary you name to receive your life insurance may be receiving or is eligible to receive government assistance due to a disability or other special circumstance. Eligibility for government benefits is often tied to the financial circumstances of the recipient. The payment of insurance proceeds may be a financial windfall that disqualifies your beneficiary from eligibility for government benefits, or the proceeds may have to be paid to the government entity as reimbursement for benefits paid. Again, an estate attorney can help you address this issue.
Review All Your Beneficiary Designations
In addition to life insurance, you may have other accounts that name a beneficiary. Be sure to periodically review the beneficiary designations on each of these accounts to ensure that they are in line with your intended wishes and talk with an agent or financial advisor to ensure that all your documents are up-to-date and accurate.