Make Sure Your Assets Go To Intended Beneficiaries

Q: I just joined a company that offers a 401(k) plan. In looking over the material, I noticed a “beneficiary designation” form. What, exactly, is that?

A: A beneficiary designation is a document that identifies who is to receive the proceeds of the 401(k) upon your death. Life insurance, individual retirement accounts and other qualified plans proceeds also pass according to a beneficiary designation. Most beneficiary designations allow the owner to select a primary beneficiary and a contingent beneficiary. The primary beneficiary receives the proceeds upon the death of the owner. The contingent beneficiary receives the proceeds if the primary beneficiary is not living. 

Q: Who can be named as a beneficiary on a beneficiary designation?
A: Generally, there are no restrictions on who can be named as a beneficiary. Most commonly, people name one or more individuals including a spouse or children, a trust, or a charity.

Q: I recently remarried and updated my will to leave everything that I own to my current spouse. Years ago, I signed a beneficiary designation for my 401(k) and designated my former spouse as the primary beneficiary. Should I update that beneficiary designation to match my new will?
A: Yes. It is important to understand that a beneficiary designation for a 401(k) overrides wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents. If there is conflict between a beneficiary designation and a will, the beneficiary designation prevails. In your case, even though you have updated your will, if you fail to update the beneficiary designation for your 401(k), your former spouse will receive the proceeds of your 401(k) upon your death.

Q: Are there any tax problems that can arise if I fail to complete or update a beneficiary designation?
A: Yes. There can be a multitude of tax problems and it is wise to consult a tax professional regarding the proper completion of a beneficiary designation. 


This "Law You Can Use" consumer legal information column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA). It was prepared by Victor J. Ferguson, an attorney with the Columbus firm of Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP.​

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. This article is not intended to be legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from a licensed attorney.



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