7 potential mistakes made on beneficiary designations

3 MIN READ | #blog

Beneficiary designations ensure that accumulated wealth goes to your intended heirs and beneficiaries. Yet, most individuals fail to regularly review them, even after a significant life event. Here are 7 common beneficiary designation practices which may have adverse consequences:

  1. Naming the estate as a personal life insurance beneficiary

First, the proceeds may now be subject to probate or intestate administration which may delay access and use of the proceeds by your surviving family members. Second, it may subject the proceeds to federal and state estate taxes regardless of how policy ownership was structured. Third, any creditor protection that may have covered life insurance proceeds under state law may be lost.1 Fourth, proceed distribution is now subject to the terms of your Will or intestacy proceedings, which may or may not be what you intended. Naming an individual, for a personally owned policy, or the trust, for a trust-owned policy, may be a more beneficial method.

  1. Failure to name a contingent beneficiary

It’s important to name primary and secondary beneficiaries, and perhaps even tertiary beneficiaries. This helps ensure that the asset goes to the individual or organization intended, even if the primary beneficiary has predeceased. Otherwise, the asset will be included in the estate which may mean, similarly to #1 above, having the asset go through probate or intestate administration and the resulting delay in access and use of the asset and unnecessary legal and administrative fees.

  1. Naming a minor child as a life insurance policy beneficiary

An insurance carrier typically will not pay benefits to a minor. This may lead to court proceedings to designate a custodian, conservator or trustee for the minor’s benefit to receive the proceeds. That may delay access and use of the proceeds and may cause unnecessary legal and administrative expenses. If the minor is intended to be the policy beneficiary, then you may want to consider naming a trust as beneficiary.

  1. Failure to remove an ex-spouse as beneficiary

Depending upon the type of financial product and the state you live in, a divorce may not automatically remove your ex-spouse as a beneficiary. You may want to consider changing beneficiary designations after a divorce.

  1. Failing to regularly review beneficiary designations

Are people that have already passed away or family members who have been estranged or otherwise provided for still beneficiaries on your accounts? Beneficiary designations should be reviewed regularly and certainly after a significant life event.

  1. Failure to account for special needs children

Do you have a special needs child? Do you have well-intentioned family members who may have listed your child as a financial product or account beneficiary? Those good intentions may now disqualify your child from various benefits and governmental assistance. In situations involving special needs planning, careful attention to the details matter.

  1. Failure to coordinate all beneficiary designations with the overall estate plan

People often forget that beneficiary designations on their financial products and accounts typically control who gets the asset; not the beneficiaries in a last will. Forgetting to coordinate all beneficiaries with your estate plan may result in adverse tax consequences, failure to leave the estate in the manner intended (e.g., children don’t get an even share), or worse, inadvertently leaving out a family member from an inheritance.

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1 State creditor protection for life insurance policies varies by state. Contact your state’s insurance department or consult your legal advisor regarding your individual situation.


Guardian, its subsidiaries, agents, and employees do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. Consult your tax, legal, or accounting professional regarding your individual situation.