Just because you have a will, that doesn’t mean you have an estate plan. Some of your most valuable assets won’t pass to new owners under your will. Those assets include your IRA, your life insurance policy and any annuities as well as payable-on-death and transfer-on-death accounts.
All of those assets will go to the beneficiaries you have named. Therefore, you should review your beneficiary designations periodically to see if you want to make any changes. Be especially diligent about checking on your beneficiaries after you get married or divorced, and after births or deaths in the family.
In one case decided by the Supreme Court, a man had died after he was divorced. His ex-wife had waived her rights to the man’s company retirement plan but the employee had not changed the beneficiary designation.
The company paid the account balance to the ex-wife, who was still the named beneficiary, and the man’s daughter sued for the money. Unanimously, the Supreme Court upheld the company’s payout to the ex-wife, saying that retirement plan benefits must be paid to the named beneficiary unless the plan document provides otherwise.
Similarly, a will won’t affect your IRA. In some cases, you may handle the disposition of this valuable source of wealth in less than a minute by jotting down a few words on a mass-produced form. That may be a mistake. Just as you’d draft a will or trust that covers all contingencies, regarding your assets, you should do the same with your IRA.
With proper planning, an IRA can span generations and pay out multiples of the amount you accumulate. In the absence of detailed instructions, though, tax deferral may be cut short. Moreover, the lack of a proper succession plan for your IRA may lead to familial strife and ease the way for future predators who are tempted by the substantial amounts involved.
The real problem is that a custodian’s own form is often too limiting. One answer is to prepare a customized beneficiary designation form to supplement or replace the form IRA custodians provide.
A customized form can be of any length, with as much detail as you’d include in a will. In this document you can spell out how you’d like your IRA to be handled, no matter what circumstances arise.