In the past month, I’ve talk to two different clients who have listed one person as a beneficiary on an asset when the asset is meant to go to multiple people or another person entirely. If you have done this, please stop reading, and go change it right now!
Now the most common place I see this is for minor children. Parents will put the person who is supposed to use the money for the child as the beneficiary on life insurance. Now, I really dislike this for two major reasons. First, that person is the legal owner of the money and does not have a legal obligation to use it for the child. Well, if you trust that person enough with the money, hopefully that’s a non-issue. But even if that’s not an issue, what happens if that person inherits the money then dies? Chances are it will not go back to the children, but rather a spouse or that person’s children. Just best to avoid by planning properly for minor children.
The other time I see people do this is for real estate. They want to avoid a beneficiary deed where all the beneficiaries (and their spouses) must sign and make decisions together; instead they put one person on the beneficiary deed and tell them their wishes. But the problem is that person has no legal obligation to share the money as instructed. Further, while there may not be a tax consequence, there are likely extra tax returns that should be filed (which probably won’t be). In the end, it causes a bigger mess than just creating a proper estate plan with a trust.
Finally, the biggest asset this is a problem with is traditional retirement money. Instead of listing all the beneficiaries on an IRA, I had a client only list one sibling and ask them to share that money among all eight siblings. Again, this person has no legal obligation to share, which makes me wary, but even more importantly there is likely to be a tax problem here. Traditional retirement money has not had income tax taken out of it yet and so when the account is liquidated, income tax is paid at that time. So, if a person inherits the retirement money, then liquidates it to divide it, that person will be paying a lump sum of taxes. Instead, by listing all intended beneficiaries, each beneficiary will have the option to retain the retirement money as an inherited IRA, and only pay taxes in small amounts each year. A much more tax efficient option.
So, if you have set up your plan listing one person instead of all the intended beneficiaries, you might want to reconsider your plan and even start thinking about a trust.