A Last Will and Testament is an important estate planning document that contains provisions for assets and the distribution of property upon death. Unfortunately, many individuals fail to account for assets that do not pass directly under a Will. These assets may include life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, and 401(k) or 403 plans. After the policyholder of these assets dies, the policies may distribute the benefits to their heirs at law if there is no beneficiary designation and no Last Will and Testament. Following major life events, such as marriage, divorce, change of employment, disability or death of a spouse, individuals should create or update their Last Will and Testament and their beneficiary designation forms on retirement benefits or other assets.
A life insurance policy is a financial instrument that pays out a sum of money either on the death of the policyholder or after a set time. A policyholder must designate a beneficiary of the policy proceeds when he or she passes away. If the individual fails to update their policy, especially following a major life event, an unintended party, such as a former spouse, may end up being the sole beneficiary. For this reason, it is best for policyholders to consistently amend and update polices to align with their wishes for the future. A policyholder may be able to name their estate as a beneficiary, to have the policy’s proceeds pass under a Last Will and Testament and divided amongst the individual’s designated beneficiaries. However, if the proceeds become part of the insured’s estate, they are not exempt from the estate’s creditors and are subject to probate.
Generally, if the deceased names a beneficiary for a pension, IRA or a qualified retirement plan such as a 401(k) or 403 plan, it will not be subject to probate and thus the terms of a Will do not control. Once an individual dies, the beneficiary named on the policy or IRA will be entitled to the funds remaining in the account. To access the funds, the beneficiary makes a claim and the IRA/Pension/Insurance policy makes a payment or a series of payments to that person.
However, complications arise when individuals fail to keep beneficiary designations up to date or fail to name a beneficiary at all. If an individual does not name a beneficiary, the funds will be payable to the estate and subject to probate for distribution. The probate process could result in delays, reducing the amount of funds received by the beneficiaries and limiting payout options. It is important that, if the individual gets married, has children, or gets divorced, he or she updates their beneficiary designations. If an individual dies without changing a plan’s designation from a former spouse, his or her ex-spouse will be entitled to its contents, even if the ex-spouses haven’t spoken in years or if the ex-spouse remarried. It is important to also update the retirement accounts if a beneficiary passes away. If a beneficiary dies before the account holder, it would be construed as if there were no beneficiary named and the account’s funds would most likely be payable to the estate and subject to probate.
Neglecting to update a Will, life insurance policy, and retirement accounts when major life events occur may lead to unwanted outcomes. It is important that individuals review these documents regularly to ensure that it reflects their current situation and wishes for the future. If you or a loved one needs assistance with reviewing a Will or another estate planning matter, look to the experienced New York estate planning lawyers at Hobson-Williams, P.C. The firm’s attorneys will help you establish an estate plan that is reflective of your current wishes and will help ensure your assets will pass as intended. For more information or to schedule a consultation, call contact our New York estate planning law firm at (718) 210-4744.