Once you’ve bought an annuity or a life insurance policy and named your beneficiaries, you may never think about your beneficiaries again. But that could be a big mistake.
If you get divorced and remarry but fail to change your beneficiary from your ex-spouse to your current spouse, your ex will receive the proceeds. Besides divorce, other life changes such as marriage or death of a loved one are occasions to review beneficiaries.
Additionally, there may be new people in your life that you want to include—such as grandchildren. Maybe there’s a charitable organization that you wish to support.
Before making any changes, it’s important to understand how primary and contingent beneficiaries work.
If you’re married, your spouse is normally your primary beneficiary and your child or children are contingent. The contingent beneficiaries will receive the proceeds on your death if your primary beneficiary dies before you do or at the same time as you do.
While you should notify the insurer about the death of a primary beneficiary, even if you don’t, the proceeds will automatically go to your contingent beneficiaries.
Fairness across generations
If you have a number of grandchildren, the issue becomes more complex.
Suppose you’re married and have three adult children. The default is to name your spouse your primary beneficiary and name your children contingent beneficiaries who’ll all share equally in the proceeds.
Here’s where it gets complicated. Suppose child A has three children, child B has none and child C has two, for a total of five grandchildren.
What would happen if both your spouse and child C predecease you? In that case, unless you’ve set up your beneficiaries correctly, all the proceeds would go to your two surviving children. Child C’s two children would be disinherited.
That’s not what most people want.
Instead, you can specify that if one of your children is deceased that their share will go to his or her children. This is called a per stirpes distribution.
That means that each branch of the family will receive an equal share. If that’s what you want to do, you must request per stripes because equal distribution (per capita) is the default.
Per stirpes designations are available from most but not all insurance companies.
Because annuities, life insurance policies and retirement plans list beneficiaries, they all bypass probate court. That means that your will won’t determine who gets the proceeds—which is why having the right beneficiaries is so crucial.
Here’s a video to help: My brief video about using per stirpes is online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOBK-nVYxgA.