Common Mistakes when Making Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designation mistakes prevent assets such as retirement and life insurance accounts from going to the right beneficiaries.

No matter what kind of estate plan you use, your plan can be undone by some common mistakes when making beneficiary designations.  Modern banking and worker economics also means that a lot of your financial value, usually in retirement accounts like IRAs or 401(k)s for example, are governed by beneficiary designations.  That means one mistake affects a huge portion of your financial worth.   Many events make it necessary to review beneficiary designations, as the author in the article “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make” from Kiplinger points out.

Now, there is no definitive guide on how to handle beneficiary designations.  The best solution is to review them with your estate planning attorney to ensure the designations fit your estate plan.  However, this article will cover some common mistakes that can undo even the best of estate plans.  You may also want to review some common estate planning mistakes as they somewhat overlap.  See here for more info:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-estate-planning-mistakes-do-people-make/ 

Life Changes.  Any time you experience a life change, including happy events, like marriage, birth or adoption, or unhappy events such as the death or disability of a loved one, you need to review your beneficiary designations.  If there are new people in your life you would like to leave a bequest to, like grandchildren or a charitable organization you want to support as part of your legacy, your beneficiary designations will need to reflect those as well.  A very common and likely very obvious mistake is to not review and update your beneficiary designations after one of those events.

For people who are married, their spouse is usually the primary beneficiary, but do you have a contingent? Beneficiary designations typically have multiple tiers.  The first person to receive is the primary beneficiary.  For married couples, this is typically the other spouse.  However, many clients forget to include contingent beneficiaries to receive if the primary is deceased.  Children are often contingent beneficiaries who receive the proceeds upon death if the primary beneficiary dies before or at the same time that you do.  But, a lack of a beneficiary is a big problem and many companies direct to the proceeds to your estate, which I’m guessing isn’t what you wanted.

It is also wise to notify any insurance company or retirement fund custodian about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you have properly named contingent beneficiaries, or even better, just update the beneficiary designation to remove the deceased beneficiary’s name.

Not understanding the financial institution’s terms.  Clients often ask what will happen if a named beneficiary of their retirement account dies.  Who does it go to next?  I always have the same answer, what do the account policies say?  For example, let’s say you’re married and have three adult children. The first beneficiary is your spouse, and your three children are contingent beneficiaries. Let’s say Sam has three children, Dolores has no children and James has two children, for a total of five grandchildren.

If both your spouse and James die before you do, all of the proceeds would pass to who?   It could be your two surviving children, and James’ two children would effectively be disinherited. That might not be what you would want. It is also possible that the assets go to the children of the predeceased child.

The difference between these are the difference of what are typically termed per stirpes and per capita.   Some companies allow you to indicate your preference, but not always.   So, you’ll need to speak with the company to better understand how their designations are ruled.

Not incorporating into your estate plan.  Finally, and I made this point briefly in the introduction, you want to coordinate your beneficiary designations and your estate plan.  For example, many clients utilize trusts for their beneficiaries to provide them creditor and divorce protection.  If your life insurance policy goes directly to your child, that money will not receive the creditor and divorce protection the trust affords.  So, arranging the beneficiary designations so that the insurance proceeds will go to that trust protects that money as well.

These are some common mistakes in making beneficiary designations.  Your estate planning attorney will help review all of your assets and means of distribution, so your wishes for your family are clear and effective.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 23, 2021) “One Beneficiary Mistake You Really Don’t Want to Make”

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Estate Planning for the Family Farm

Estate planning for family farms is not just about the business, it is about passing your values and legacy to your loved ones.

The family is at the center of most farms and agricultural businesses. Each family has its own history, values and goals. A good place to start the planning process is to take the time to reflect on the family and the farm history, says Ohio County Journal in the recent article “Whole Farm Planning.”

There are lessons to be learned from all generations, both from their successes and disappointments. The underlying values and goals for the entire family and each individual member need to be articulated. They usually remain unspoken and are evident only in how family members treat each other and make business decisions. Articulating and discussing values and goals makes the planning process far more efficient and effective.  What’s more, effective estate planning for a family farm may help convey these values and goals to the next generation.  This is true of most businesses, but estate planning for a family farm is more than just a simple will.

An analysis of the current state of the farm needs to be done to determine the financial, physical and personnel status of the business. Is the farm being managed efficiently? Are there resources not being used? Is the farm profitable and are the employees contributing or creating losses? It is also wise to consider external influences, including environmental, technological, political, and governmental matters.

Five plans are needed. Once the family understands the business from the inside, it’s time to create five plans for the family: business, retirement, estate, transition and investment plans. Note that none of these five stands alone. They must work in harmony to maintain the long-term life of the farm, and one bad plan will impact the others.

Most planning in farms concerns production processes, but more is needed. A comprehensive business plan helps create an action plan for production and operation practices, as well as the financial, marketing, personnel, and risk-management. One method is to conduct a SWOT analysis: Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats in each of the areas mentioned in the preceding sentence. Create a realistic picture of the entire farm, where it is going and how to get there.  This aspect is similar to most estate planning for businesses, so see here for more detail.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/estate-planning-with-a-business/

Retirement planning is a missing ingredient for many farm families. There needs to be a strategy in place for the owners, usually the parents, so they can retire at a reasonable point. This includes determining how much money each family member needs for retirement, and the farm’s obligation to retirees. Retirement age, housing and retirement accounts, if any, need to be considered. The goal is to have the farm run profitably by the next generation, so the parent’s retirement will not adversely impact the farm.  It may also simply be having an exit strategy and a way to monetize the farm if you choose not to continue owning or working it.

Transition planning looks at how the business can continue for many generations. This planning requires the family to look at its current situation, consider the future and create a plan to transfer the farm to the next generation. This includes not only transferring assets, but also transferring control. Those who are retiring in the future must hand over not just the farm, but their knowledge and experience to the next generation.  A key component is identifying who would operate the farm in the future, including groups of people suited to specific tasks.

Estate planning is determining and putting down on paper how the farm assets, from land and buildings to livestock, equipment and debts owed to or by the farm, will be distributed. The complexity of an agricultural business requires the help of a skilled estate planning attorney who has experience working with farm families. The estate plan must work with the transition plan. Good estate planning for a family farm may also need to address how family members who are not involved with the farm will be treated fairly without putting the farm operation in jeopardy.

Investment planning for farm families usually takes the shape of land, machinery and livestock. Some off-farm investments may be wise, if the families wish to save for future education or retirement needs and achieve investment diversification. These instruments may include stocks, bonds, life insurance or retirement accounts. Farmers need to consider their personal risk tolerance, tax considerations and time horizons for their investments.  In sum, estate planning for a family farm is essentially to protecting the integrity of the farm you’ve worked to develop and to protect the family at the heart of the farm.

Reference: Ohio County Journal (Feb. 11, 2021) “Whole Farm Planning”

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