The Ideal Beneficiary for your IRA or Retirement Plan

beneficiary-designation-retirement-plan-james-langeGive Your Heirs as Much Flexibility as Possible

I gave serious thought to changing the title of Chapter 15, which discusses the ideal beneficiary for your retirement plan, to “My Pet Peeve”. This is because of how annoying I find it to see people spend thousands of dollars to create elaborate wills and trusts, only to render them useless because they carelessly listed the wrong beneficiary on their retirement plan. Unfortunately, it’s an all too common mistake.

What follows here is one of the most, if not THE most, important concepts in the book. Your will and trust documents do not control the distribution of your IRA or retirement plans. Any account that has a specific beneficiary designation will be distributed to the individuals listed on that beneficiary form, regardless of what your will or trust says. Why is this important? Well, I’ll tell you about a situation I became aware of recently. A gentleman who had been married and divorced twice prepared a will that left all of his assets to his children from his first marriage. Most of his wealth was in his retirement plan, though.   He died unexpectedly, before he could get around to changing the beneficiary designation of that plan from his second ex-wife to his children. After his death, the second ex-wife (who had since remarried) received the very large retirement plan, and his children received the non-retirement assets, which were worth far less than the retirement plan. To add insult to injury, the second ex-wife made sure that his children knew that she had used her inheritance to buy herself and her new spouse very expensive cars – even going so far as to post photos on social media websites as proof! So your beneficiary designations are very, very important – so important that, in fact, if you’re my client I won’t even let you fill them out by yourself!

I like to give my clients as many options as I can. The beneficiary designation that I usually recommend gives your heirs as much flexibility as possible. It allows both your surviving spouse and your adult child, assuming that the child is the contingent beneficiary, to disclaim or refuse the inheritance to his or her own children (your children and/or grandchildren). Under current laws, this allows the children and grandchildren to take minimum distributions based on their own life expectancy. Will I still do this if the law changes? More than likely, yes, but the financial benefits will not be as significant as they were in previous years. If this topic interests you, then you’ll probably want to read Chapter 15 to learn about all the changes.

My next post will continue on the topic of beneficiary designations, and why they are important if your estate plan includes trusts. Stop 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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