After your death, the disposition of retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, and accounts at financial institutions are governed by beneficiary designations. If those designations are outdated, unspecific, or wrong, your assets may not be distributed the way you would like. 

After your death, the disposition of retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, and accounts at financial institutions are governed by beneficiary designations. If those designations are outdated, unspecific, or wrong, your assets may not be distributed the way you would like. Here are items to consider.

Be specific and stay current.

When you name a beneficiary, your assets can pass directly to that person or entity without going through a legal process called probate. Update the designations for life events such as divorce, remarriage, births, deaths, job changes, and retirement account conversions.

Think about unexpected outcomes.

Be alert for the effect of taxes and unintended consequences. For example, if the money in your accounts is distributed directly to your heirs, they may be stuck with a large unexpected tax bill. For wealthier heirs, estate tax may also play a role. In 2016, the estate tax exclusion is $5.45 million and the top estate tax rate is 40%. Another concern: If one of your designated beneficiaries is disabled, government benefits may be reduced or eliminated by the transfer of assets. You may want to consult an attorney to establish a special needs trust to ensure your loved one is not adversely affected.

Name contingent beneficiaries.

If your primary beneficiary dies or is incapacitated, having a backup, or contingent, selection will ensure that your assets are properly distributed. In some cases, a primary beneficiary may choose to disclaim, or waive, the right to the assets. In that case, contingent beneficiaries can step up to primary position.

Practice good recordkeeping.

Keep your beneficiary designation forms in a safe location, and maintain current copies with your financial institution, attorney, or advisor.

Beneficiary designations are an important part of estate planning.

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