Choosing a Life Insurance Beneficiary
By WHN's Guest Columnist, M. Bryan Freeman
If you own assets, from bank accounts to life insurance, it's important that you choose a beneficiary. A beneficiary is the person or entity who receives your assets or the proceeds of your assets (like the "death benefit" from your life insurance) after you die.
Why choose a beneficiary
You have control over who receives the proceeds from your life insurance: a person(s) or entity.
No beneficiary designation? The funds go either directly into your estate or to someone to whom you did not intend to leave your life insurance proceeds. This may be determined by your state's laws.
Types of beneficiaries
Person or entity. A beneficiary can be a person or an entity. A husband or wife is a common beneficiary designation but you may also designate a non-spousal/non-legal partner, a former spouse or another loved one as a beneficiary.
WHN Tip: Identify your spouse by name rather than 'spouse," "husband" or "wife" to avoid the risk of an ex-spouse receiving the death benefit unintentionally.
WHN Tip: If you want to name a former spouse as your beneficiary, your life insurance company may request you complete a form demonstrating your former spouse's "non-spouse" status.
Children. If you name minor children as beneficiaries, you also need to designate an adult custodian (which can be as simple as filling out a custodian designation form from your life insurance company) or trustee, which entails setting up a legal trust through an attorney.
WHN Tip: If you list your children by name as beneficiaries, update your beneficiary form to include any children subsequently born. Otherwise, they will not be considered beneficiaries.
Your estate. Naming your estate as beneficiary gives you the flexibility to change your will to designate who gets what. However, having a death benefit paid to your estate increases your estate's value, which can have tax liability and other implications.
Charity or nonprofit organizations. A favorite non-profit or charity organization can be a beneficiary. This can create certain tax or financial planning advantages; however, such choices should be discussed with your advisors (attorney, accountant, financial planner, etc.).
WHN Tip: Restrictions
Your life insurance company may have guidelines about whom or what can be named as a beneficiary, or may ask for further information or documentation about your designation.
Choosing A Beneficiary
A beneficiary is a very personal choice. It will depend on your personal and financial circumstances. Some people see death benefits as protection for their loved ones; some people see death benefits more as a financial transaction – a transfer of wealth. Consider the following:
Are there people who depend on you for financial support? If named as beneficiaries, would they be able to manage the death benefits themselves? (For instance, are they minors, mentally competent, etc.?)
Are there people who will bear expenses in the event of your death?
Are there financial or personal considerations for wanting to ensure your death benefits are passed directly or indirectly to certain people or entities or institutions?
Making It Official
To formally elect your beneficiary, you will have to formally notify your life insurance company or you may elect a beneficiary when you apply for or modify your life insurance.
You should to notify your beneficiary that he or she has been chosen for such; you may want to provide them documentation of such.
WHN Tip: Keep It Up to Date
You should consider discussing your beneficiary designation with your advisor at annual reviews in the event there has been a change in your beneficiary decision due to their health, welfare or personal problems.
Changing and Updating Beneficiaries
Most life insurance policies will allow you to change your beneficiary at any time. The forms and procedures through which you make changes will vary from insurer to insurer.
It is a good idea to review insurance, financial and estate planning needs regularly, perhaps annually, especially as you make major life changes, such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, a child becoming an adult, and so on.
In the event your named beneficiary is your son or daughter and they have divorced, their divorce decree may state the former spouse is entitled to a portion of future assets. It may be wise to consider your beneficiaries' circumstances when updating your estate and beneficiary information.
Other changes in your life do not automatically change your beneficiary. For instance, if you name your spouse as a beneficiary and then you divorce, the beneficiary designation does not change simply because you legally divorced. Your spouse will still be your designated beneficiary and you will have to separately and formally change that, if you wish and if you are allowed to do so by the terms of your divorce and the resulting settlement.
It is possible to name an "irrevocable beneficiary." In general, this means that, while that person is living, you cannot change the beneficiary designation without his or her consent. Consult with your advisors on this issue.
In the event you no longer have a need or cannot afford the insurance you own and consider a life settlement, if your beneficiary is irrevocable, there may be a problem with consummating the deal.
Wills and Insurance Beneficiary Designations
Naming a beneficiary for your life insurance is separate from your will and other estate-related documents. In fact, naming a beneficiary on a life policy (or other asset) can mean it is paid directly to your beneficiary and does not have to pass through your estate. So, even if there is a problem with your will or estate, the asset for which a beneficiary is named separately may be settled prior to other aspects of your estate.
In consultation with your advisors (attorney, etc.), you may or may not want to mention your life policy and its beneficiary in your will and other documents.
Beneficiary Tax Consequences
In general, the beneficiary is responsible for any taxes owed on the death benefit they receive. Depending on the ownership of the policy, the proceeds could possibly trigger the estate tax even though the life insurance is tax free to the beneficiary.
If you leave your life insurance proceeds to your estate, the death benefit is counted toward the value of your estate and may affect the tax liability. Conversely, if you designate a beneficiary directly on the policy and the death benefit does not pass through your estate, the value of the death benefit does not affect the tax liability of your estate.
It's important that you thoughtfully choose a beneficiary for each asset you own, especially your life insurance. Make such a designation after learning about the process and your options, and only after conferring with advisors, like your insurance agent or attorney. With good information and sound advice, you can make the best decision for your individual circumstances.
M. Bryan Freeman, a licensed insurance agent for 29 years, is founder and president of Habersham Funding LLC, an Atlanta-based life settlement provider that does business nationally.
The information provided here is not meant to be a substitute for professional insurance or legal advice. Always check with a financial, legal, tax, or other advisor before making any insurance policy decisions or changes.
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