What is a beneficiary?
Receiver of death proceeds
A beneficiary is the individual or entity you name (designate) to receive the proceeds of a life insurance policy on your life.
Irrevocable versus revocable
A beneficiary can be irrevocable or revocable. You cannot change an irrevocable beneficiary. An irrevocable beneficiary has a vested property interest in the life insurance death benefit (effective immediately upon being named as a beneficiary). This interest cannot be taken away or decreased without his or her consent. A revocable beneficiary is someone whose interest is contingent; that is, it can be decreased or terminated at any time.
Primary versus secondary versus final
You can name as many beneficiaries as you want, subject to limitations set by the policy. Most policies allow you to choose more than one beneficiary at each level and the proceeds would thereby be split equally between all beneficiaries surviving at a particular level upon the insured's death. The beneficiary to whom the proceeds go first is called the primary beneficiary. If the primary beneficiary predeceases the insured, the secondary beneficiary becomes entitled to the proceeds upon the insured's death. A "final" beneficiary can be named as well. Final beneficiaries will receive the proceeds only if they outlive the designated primary and secondary beneficiaries. Usually, charities or more remote relatives such as aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews are named at this level.
In addition to your primary beneficiary, you should consider naming both secondary and final beneficiaries in case you outlive the primary beneficiary, you and your primary beneficiary die simultaneously, or the primary beneficiary is unable to collect the proceeds. In such cases, if you have not named secondary or final beneficiaries, the proceeds of the policy will pass to your estate and may therefore be subject to estate taxes. Naming secondary and final beneficiaries gives some extra protection against such eventualities.
Technical Note: If you and your primary beneficiary die simultaneously (and there are no other named beneficiaries), the proceeds are distributed under the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act (USDA). That is, you are presumed to have survived the beneficiary and the proceeds go to your estate.
Technical Note: A beneficiary who kills you by accident, in self-defense, or through gross negligence or manslaughter will be unable to collect the proceeds of insurance on your life. Every state bars intentional killers from profiting from their act.
Why is designating the proper beneficiary important?
Estate planning goals of life insurance
In estate planning, life insurance is purchased for two primary reasons: 1) to provide cash to the insured's family members for daily living expenses; and 2) to provide cash for death taxes and estate expenses. In order to ensure that your beneficiaries receive the maximum benefit from life insurance policies on your life, you must properly structure ownership of your policies to avoid income and estate taxes that might deplete the funds. Proper designation of your beneficiaries is also important.
Caution: To avoid taxes, you must arrange proper ownership of policies on your life.
Subject to federal estate taxes and/or certain limitations
Naming or changing the beneficiaries of your life insurance policies may have federal estate tax consequences. Additionally, naming or changing a beneficiary may be subject to some limitations. Therefore, you need to understand all the ins and outs of naming/changing a beneficiary.
Who should you name as your beneficiary in order to avoid federal estate taxes?
Not your estate or your personal representative (executor)
Life insurance proceeds will not be includable in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes unless: (1) the proceeds are payable to or for the benefit of your estate, (2) you possessed "incidents of ownership" in the policy at the time of your death or at any time during the three years prior to your death, or (3) you transferred ownership of a policy within three years of your death.
Therefore, in order to avoid inclusion of the proceeds in your estate, thereby subjecting them to estate tax, you should not name your estate or your executor as a beneficiary. If you own the policy on your death (or within three years of your death), the proceeds will be includable in your estate whether you name your estate as your beneficiary or not. The primary reason for not naming your estate or your executor as your beneficiary is that doing so subjects the proceeds to probate expenses and claims of creditors, whereas, if someone other than your estate or your executor were named, the proceeds would pass to that person free of such expenses and claims. It is a good idea to make sure that policies on your life that are owned by others do not name your estate or your executor as the beneficiary since this would cause inclusion of the proceeds in your estate when this would otherwise not be true.
Tip: Some state laws provide that proceeds payable to an estate or executor are treated as if they are paid to the ultimate beneficiaries of your estate (your heirs). The IRS honors state law in these cases. The effect of the IRS honoring such state laws is that the proceeds may not be taxable in the decedent's estate if the decedent did not own the policy prior to his or her death or within three years of his or her death or if the proceeds are directed by the decedent's will to a charitable beneficiary or the decedent's spouse.
Not to a beneficiary to satisfy a debt
Naming a beneficiary to receive life insurance proceeds in payment of a debt will be considered by the IRS to be for the benefit of your estate, and the proceeds will be includable in your gross estate for estate tax purposes.
Not to a beneficiary to pay death taxes or other estate debts or expenses
Naming a beneficiary to receive proceeds under an agreement that requires him or her to pay death taxes or other estate debts or expenses will be considered by the IRS to be for the benefit of your estate, and the proceeds will be includable in your gross estate for estate tax purposes.
Not to a beneficiary to pay alimony or support
Naming a beneficiary to receive life insurance proceeds to pay alimony or support will be considered by the IRS to be for the benefit of your estate and these proceeds will also be includable in your gross estate for estate tax purposes. If the decedent/insured owns the policy on his or her death (or within three years of his or her death), ownership will cause inclusion of the proceeds in the decedent/insured's estate regardless of who the ultimate beneficiaries are.
Who should you name as your beneficiary to avoid limitations?
No one, if you are incompetent
If you are incompetent (whether or not you are legally declared to be so), you cannot name or change a beneficiary. The test for incompetency to name or change a beneficiary is similar to the test for incompetency to execute a will; that is, do you have the capacity to understand your actions?
Tip: There is a presumption that you are competent. If a party claims that you are incompetent, that party must prove it.
Not your employer, if you have coverage under a group life policy
Some states do not allow you to name your employer as the beneficiary if your coverage is under a group life policy provided by that employer.
Not a minor, unless a guardian has been appointed (or a trust is used)
Generally, insurers will not make settlements directly to minors. Carefully consider whether to name a minor as a beneficiary unless you also appoint a guardian or use a trust.
Only as allowed under a divorce decree or settlement agreement
Your right to change a beneficiary may be limited by a divorce decree or settlement agreement. In some states, divorce automatically terminates a spouse's interest in insurance on the other spouse's life. In other states, divorce allows a policyowner to change the beneficiary upon divorce, even if the beneficiary is otherwise irrevocable.
Only a specified class, if you (the insured) are a minor
In some states, if you (the insured) are a minor, you can name only a certain class of persons as beneficiaries. That class generally includes your spouse, parents, grandparents, and brothers and sisters.
Tip: Once a minor insured has reached the age of majority, he or she can change the beneficiary of a policy on his or her life.
Someone with an "insurable interest"
Some states require that where you are not the owner of the policy, the beneficiary of the policy should have an "insurable interest" in your life. The purpose of this rule is to prevent gambling. An insurable interest is a financial interest that would be adversely affected if you died. Blood and legal relatives are presumed to have an insurable interest. The purpose of this rule is to prevent gambling.
Anyone, as long as you have an existing irrevocable beneficiary's consent
If you want to change the beneficiary, but have already named an irrevocable beneficiary, you need that irrevocable beneficiary's written consent to do so.
Tip: An irrevocable beneficiary's property right ends at his or her death.
Anyone, as long as you have your spouse's consent if you use community funds to pay premiums
If you live in a community property state, any assets acquired during the marriage are considered community property (i.e., each spouses owns an undivided one half interest in the property). A spouse's interest in community property cannot be disposed of by the other spouse. If you make premium payments from community funds, the insurance so purchased is also considered community property; you must, therefore, have your spouse's written consent when naming a beneficiary to such policies.
Should you name your spouse as beneficiary?
Naming your spouse as beneficiary may not be a good idea. If a spouse is named as the beneficiary, the unlimited marital deduction applies, and the proceeds will pass free of estate taxes regardless of who owns the policy. However, the proceeds will be included in the surviving spouse's gross estate (unless, of course, they have been spent before the surviving spouse's death). By naming your spouse as the beneficiary, you will only postpone estate taxes, not avoid them entirely.
Additionally, if you and your spouse die simultaneously and your spouse is named as the beneficiary of a policy on your life, the USDA provides that the beneficiary (your spouse) will be presumed to have predeceased the insured (you). Since your spouse will be deemed to have predeceased you, the unlimited marital deduction will be inapplicable, and the proceeds may be subject to tax in your estate.
How do you name or change (i.e., designate) a beneficiary?
Complete a beneficiary designation form
When you buy life insurance, the insurer will provide you with a beneficiary designation form. Generally, the form need only be completed (i.e., the names of the beneficiaries filled in), signed, and dated by you.
Specifically identify all beneficiaries and the distribution they are to receive
Be specific when naming the beneficiaries. Make sure the designation clearly identifies to whom the proceeds are to be paid (and in what order if you are naming secondary and/or final beneficiaries).
If you want the proceeds to be distributed to your children (including legitimate, illegitimate, and adopted children, and children from a previous marriage), specify the name of each child to be sure the ones you want to name as beneficiaries are included and the ones you don't want to name as beneficiaries are excluded. You may want to include a clause such as "and any afterborn children" to provide for any children not yet born.
The phrase to my lawful children may disqualify illegitimate children in certain states.
If you want to ensure that the proceeds go to your wife at your death, do not say "to my wife, Anne Boleyn." Rather, say "to my present wife," since one day Anne Boleyn may no longer be your wife.
Caution: Terms such as heirs, issue, per stripes, and per capita have legal definitions. Be sure you understand what the terms mean before you use them. Consult a lawyer if you are not sure.
Specifically revoke previous designations
When changing a beneficiary, it is advisable to specifically revoke any previous designations by simply writing this on the change of beneficiary form.
Review beneficiary designations every two or three years or upon a change of circumstances
You may want to review your beneficiary designations every two or three years to ensure they comport with your current circumstances and wishes. Additionally, be sure to check and update your beneficiary designations upon the occurrence of certain life events, such as marriage, divorce, remarriage, and the birth of children.
Can you change a life insurance beneficiary in your will?
No. A beneficiary designation made in your will does NOT override the beneficiary designation made on the insurer's form. If you want to change your beneficiary, you must execute a change of beneficiary form provided by your insurer. Do not rely on your will to do so.
Broadridge Investor Communication Solutions, Inc. does not provide investment, tax, legal, or retirement advice or recommendations. The information presented here is not specific to any individual's personal circumstances.
To the extent that this material concerns tax matters, it is not intended or written to be used, and cannot be used, by a taxpayer for the purpose of avoiding penalties that may be imposed by law. Each taxpayer should seek independent advice from a tax professional based on his or her individual circumstances.
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