Do IRAs Override a Last Will & Testament?

By Terry White

The beneficiary form you complete when you open an IRA is like a “mini-will” for your retirement account. Because your IRA comes with its own built-in beneficiary, it doesn’t need to pass to beneficiaries through your will; it goes directly to the named beneficiary and bypasses the probate process. Failure to name or update a beneficiary can have severe financial consequences for those who eventually end up owning the IRA.

Name a Beneficiary

A standard part of any IRA account application is the “designated beneficiary form.” You should name a primary beneficiary – the person you want to have the IRA when you die. You should also supply at least one secondary beneficiary, in case the primary beneficiary predeceases you. This designated beneficiary form governs distribution of the IRA to your heirs regardless of any contrary language in your will.

Outdated or No Beneficiary

It’s important to read your IRA contract. If you don’t name a beneficiary or the beneficiary dies and there’s no alternate, the company that issued the IRA might determine the beneficiary. Usually, that means the surviving spouse inherits the IRA, or if there is none, the account goes to your estate. If your retirement account ends up as an estate asset, your will determines who will get the IRA proceeds. If you do not have a will, then state intestacy laws determine your heirs, with spouse, children, and parents first among consideration. The same rule applies if your beneficiary and alternate beneficiary predecease you and you fail to name replacement beneficiaries.

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Non-Probate Asset

If your IRA passes to your estate, it's distributed according to your will, but with heavy financial consequences for your beneficiaries. Suddenly a non-probate asset -- one that normally passes outside your will -- is subject to probate and your estate’s creditors. When the beneficiary is someone other than the surviving spouse of the deceased, federal law requires the distribution of the entire IRA balance within five years of the IRA owner's death, cutting short the time for the account to grow. None of these consequences occur if the IRA passes to a designated beneficiary named in the contract.

IRAs and Living Trusts

Think of a living trust as a substitute will. When you die, your trustee distributes your property as you desired, but usually without the cost and hassle of probate. A special kind of trust for retirement funds is the revocable IRA trust. With this type of trust, you name the trust as beneficiary of the IRA and upon your death, the IRA funds the trust and avoids immediate tax consequences. You can dictate the amounts and frequency of distributions, or distributions can be based on the life expectancy of the oldest beneficiary of the trust. Living trusts are way to delay the disbursement of IRA funds over many years to allow growth to continue. You can also use them to protect a special needs or spendthrift child, or prevent the public display of your finances that occurs in probate.

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