Changing Beneficiary Designations for Retirement Plans: Why A One-size-fits-all Approach is Definitely Not Appropriate

retirement-plans-james-lange-pittsburgh-paI had some reservations about writing Chapter 16. Chapter 15 discusses the perils of filling out your own beneficiary forms, and Chapter 16 talks about filling out beneficiary forms. It sounds counter-intuitive, but there is a method to my madness!

The reason I wrote Chapter 16 was because I thought that my readers probably wouldn’t find it very helpful to have me tell them, “Don’t do the wrong thing!” without also offering a very clear explanation of what the wrong thing is. Some folks might be disappointed that Chapter 16 is not a step-by-step guide about the “right” way to prepare your beneficiary designations. Unfortunately, that would have been an impossible task because it is one area of estate planning where a one-size-fits-all approach is definitely not appropriate. Chapter 16 is intended to offer general guidance only, and I hope you’ll consult with a professional about your own situation.

As it is becoming more common to see trusts as part of estate plans, I thought it would be helpful to go over some of the finer points of naming trusts as beneficiaries of your IRA or retirement plans. Frequently, trusts are used to “protect” assets – whether it be from taxes, creditors, or whatever the case may be. If the beneficiary designations of your trust are not precisely accurate, the trust cannot be funded. That means that the money will stay in the retirement plan, and not go in to the trust. Your heirs can try to explain to the IRS that you made a minor mistake when filling out your beneficiary form, and your intentions were really something other than what you wrote. The cost of asking the IRS to agree to your executor’s interpretation of what a beneficiary designation was supposed to be (also called a private letter ruling) is, as of this writing, about $18,000 – and there’s no guarantee that they’re going to agree with your executor anyway. If they don’t agree, then all of the work you went through to establish the trust was for nothing. So why risk the protection that you had hoped to offer by setting up the trust? Please consider using a competent professional to help you with your beneficiary forms!

Chapter 17 continues this discussion by reviewing the different types of trusts you can use as a beneficiary of your retirement plan. Check back soon!


Jim Lange, Retirement and Estate Planning A nationally recognized IRA, Roth IRA conversion, and 401(k) expert, he is a regular speaker to both consumers and professional organizations. Jim is the creator of the Lange Cascading Beneficiary Plan™, a benchmark in retirement planning with the flexibility and control it offers the surviving spouse, and the founder of The Roth IRA Institute, created to train and educate financial advisors.

Jim’s strategies have been endorsed by The Wall Street Journal (33 times), Newsweek, Money Magazine, Smart Money, Reader’s Digest, Bottom Line, and Kiplinger’s. His articles have appeared in Bottom Line, Trusts and Estates Magazine, Financial Planning, The Tax Adviser, Journal of Retirement Planning, and The Pennsylvania Lawyer magazine.

Jim is the best-selling author of Retire Secure! (Wiley, 2006 and 2009), endorsed by Charles Schwab, Larry King, Ed Slott, Jane Bryant Quinn, Roger Ibbotson and The Roth Revolution, Pay Taxes Once and Never Again endorsed by Ed Slott, Natalie Choate and Bob Keebler.

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