Dear Liza: My Stepmother had a pension, my father was the beneficiary after she died. He made me beneficiary after his death. After he died, I received the pension. Now my stepmother’s sister wants it. She is not a beneficiary. Is she entitled to it? Can she try to fight it? Your stepmother’s sister, based on what you’ve written here, is not entitled to that pension. If she isn’t the named beneficiary, she’s not entitled to the money. It’s that simple. When an account or a pension has a named beneficiary, that beneficiary is the only person entitled to that asset. Period. Unless your father didn’t have the right to name a beneficiary after his death, or was somehow named improperly by your stepmother, no one else but you would be entitled to the money. In other words, if a beneficiary is improperly designated, then that beneficiary designation itself can be challenged. But otherwise, the account holder’s designation of a beneficiary is the last word.
Tag Archives: beneficiaries
Dear Liza: My dad named his mother as his beneficiary, but she passed away in 2004. My dad died in 2013 but didn’t change his beneficiary. I am my father’s only child and he has no wife, so who gets the money ? When a person dies and there’s no surviving beneficiary named for an account, the assets would go that person’s “estate.” You don’t say what kind of account this is, but the most common kind of account with beneficiary designations would be a retirement account, so I’ll make that assumption (though most beneficiary accounts work the same way).
What that means is that, if your father left a Will, the assets in the account that you are describing would pass to the beneficiaries under that Will. If he had no Will, and you are his only child, you would be the beneficiary under the laws of the state that your father lived and died. (These are called “intestacy” laws, and they spell out who inherits if there’s no Will.)
But here’s the thing, your father’s estate may have to go through probate before the assets can be transferred to you. This depends on the size of your father’s estate, and where he lived and died. All states have what’s called a “small estates limit,” and if an estate falls below that limit, no probate is required. I can’t tell from your question how big or small your father’s estate was, or where he lived. But that’s the relevant question for you to ask. If you don’t need to go through probate, there’s a way for you to request that the account be transferred to you without a court order; if you do need to go through probate, you’ll need a court order (which is how probate ends) to have the assets transferred to your name. To find out the probate small estates limit in your father’s state, and how to transfer assets if his estate is under that limit, start here.
Dear Liza: I want to name my minor grandchildren as beneficiaries of my IRA account. How do I do that? Can I use my Will? It’s a smart idea to name minors as beneficiaries of your IRAs. Since they are young, they’ll be able to withdraw that money slowly over their life expectancy, and only pay taxes on the amounts withdrawn. But you are also correct in understanding that minors need some kind of property guardian or custodian named to manage those assets for them until they are 18–since minors can only own a minimal amount of property.
So, how do you do it?
Don’t try and name beneficiaries in your Will. It won’t work. Your Will is a legal document that governs the distribution of many of your assets, but NOT your retirement accounts. Those will pass only by the beneficiary designations on file with the plan administrator.
Here are the ways that I would advise you to let them know what you want them to do:
You can just name the minor as a beneficiary. Then, if you die while that child is a minor, their parent will need to ask the probate court in their county to name a Property Guardian to manage that account until the child is 18. (The property guardian could be the parent.) In some states, if the IRA is small enough, no property guardian need be appointed, but that will vary state to state. This isn’t ideal, since going to court takes time and some money for filing fees and it ends when the child turns 18 (at which point the money is theirs to manage and spend).
Alternatively, you can name a custodian under your state’s Uniform Transfer to Minor’s Act, which will make that person the custodian for those assets up to a certain age (21 in many states: 25 in others). A beneficiary designation like this would read, “Alan Smith, as custodian for Jane Smith, under ___’s Uniform Transfer to Minors Act to age 25.” Custodial accounts are inexpensive and easy to open at banks and brokerage accounts and end at 21 or 25 (usually), which is older than 18.
Finally, you can name a trust created for that minor as the beneficiary. That way, the trust will manage the money for that child and can last as long as you’d like it to last. A designation like this would read, “Trust created for the benefit of Jane Smith, under the SMITH FAMILY TRUST, under Agreement dated _______.” Trusts can have whatever terms you’d like to use and can last as long as you’d like them to last. IRA withdrawal rules are complicated when a trust has more than one beneficiary, so it’ s not a do-it-yourself project. Their main disadvantage is cost — you’ll have to work with an attorney to draft them.
If the plan administrator doesn’t have a form that makes it easy to name a custodian or a trust, you can do it anyway. Just attach a beneficiary designation form to their form, and make sure that they provide you with confirmation that your wishes have been properly received.
Dear Liza: Do you have any recommendations on naming children as secondary beneficiaries for life insurance/investments? Why, as a matter of fact, I do! If your children are minors (under 18 in most states), your estate plan should establish some way of managing money for them until they are old enough to handle money responsibly. This is usually accomplished by creating a trust for them until a certain age, say twenty-seven. Until then, you would name a trustee to manage and distribute the child’s assets for them; after that, the money’s theirs to manage and invest. If you have created a living trust, you would name that trust as the beneficiary for your life insurance and the secondary beneficiary for your retirement accounts — that way, the money will be available to your children, but be managed by your trustee.
You can instead use a Will as your main estate planning document and your Will can set up exactly the same structure of a trust for children managed by a trustee until the children reach a certain age. However, if you use a Will, your estate will go through probate BEFORE the trust for the kids can be funded (don’t worry, the kids will have access to your estate during the probate process). Think of this as two roads to the same place — one road (the living trust) just gets you there faster.
If, however, you name minor children directly as beneficiaries on those forms, and you die while they are still minors, a guardian of the estate will have to appointed to manage these assets, and, when a child reaches the age of 18, they money will be all theirs.
If your children are adults, you can and should name them directly. It makes it easier for them to deal with these assets after your death and there are special advantages to doing this with respect to retirement accounts.
Dear Liza: My father just died. He left his Roth IRA to ten family members, thrilled to be leaving us with a long-term retirement investment. But two of the beneficiaries are under 18, and our credit union is saying that the minors can’t keep the Roth IRA, but have to cash out their shares and open custodial accounts. That’s not what my Dad would have wanted. Are they right? Yes, most likely. Here’s the deal: a minor can inherit property, but under state law, minors can’t control that property until they’re legal adults. In California, where I practice, a minor cannot own more than $5,000 without some form of legal control and management by an adult, like a property guardianship, a custodial account, or a trust for that minor’s benefit. A property guardian is appointed by the court, and may be a child’s parent or any person nominated by the parent. The guardianship terminates when the child becomes a legal adult — 18 in my state, but this varies by state law as well. So, check with your credit union to see if they’d permit you to keep those accounts under a property guardianship to age 18. If so, it may be worth it to you get yourself appointed as property guardian. Alternatively, cash those accounts out, open up a custodial account at the credit union, and don’t let those kids touch that money. When the custodial accounts end (25 in my state; varies by state law), make them open up IRA’s with the money because that was your father’s wish. You can’t legally require that they do so, but you can make them feel really, really guilty if they don’t.
Dear Liza: My Mother’s Will left ½ to me, ½ to my sister. I am married with no children; my sister is survived by her husband and two grown children. The probate attorney said my sister’s share will go to her two children, but that her husband would inherit nothing. If that’s true, why does my attorney want my sister’s husband to sign a Quit Claim deed? As a general matter, unless a Will or trust states otherwise, a parent’s inherited share is passed to their surviving issue (children, grandchildren) and not to a surviving spouse. Of course, your mother could have left your sister’s share to your sister’s husband if she wanted to. Without reading the Will and without reviewing probate rules for your state, I can only offer you some general thoughts. It sounds as if your attorney is just being extra careful to make sure that title to the house is clear–if you ever sell that house, the chain of title must be documented and cleared before the sale. A Quit Claim Deed documents that your brother-in-law has no claim on the property, which sounds true. Your brother-in-law may feel more comfortable signing the Quit Claim deed if he gets his own attorney to make sure that nothing fishy is going on.
Dear Liza,, Within a month I’m going to have a closing on a duplex house in NJ. If I want my son to live there and manage it for us (since he lives in NJ) should I put his name in the title also? If somebody sues him for any reason can they go after the house if his name is included in the title? Is there any legal differences whether his name is included in the title or not? Short answer: YES! If you put your son’s name on title to the duplex, you are making a taxable gift to him equal to the value of percentage of the property you put in his name. You and your wife can each give him $13,000 free of gift tax ($26,000) total per year. But if the property is worth more than that, which it probably is, you’ll have to file a gift tax return by April 15th of the year following the gift, reporting the value. Currently, you and your wife can each make gifts of up to $5 million, so you’re most likely not going to owe any gift tax on this transaction, but by reporting it, you’ll be using up a part of that lifetime gift tax exclusion. And yes, certainly, if his name is on title, creditors can go after his percentage ownership of that property. Finally, if you put him on title now, his basis in that property (for the share that he would own) will be the original cost of the property; if, instead, he inherits it upon your death, his tax basis in that property will be stepped up to it’s then current market value (which means no capital gains tax if he sells it at that time).
Dear Liza: My sister has an IRA naming her three children as beneficiaries. They are all adults. My sister is quite ill and she doesn’t have a living trust. Will her IRA have to go through probate before it can be transferred to her children? That is such a great question–for two reasons. First, it’s so important: for many people, a retirement account is the largest asset that they will be leaving to their children. Second, I have a really clear answer, not one of those, “well-it’s-complicated” kind of blog posts. NO, IRA’S DO NOT GO THROUGH PROBATE IF THEY HAVE NAMED BENEFICIARIES. NEITHER DO LIFE INSURANCE PROCEEDS. Probate was invented in merry old England to avoid fraud after a person died. Way back when, if the lord died, the evil nephew could easily steal the castle because no one was really looking out for the interest of the dead lord. Probate is about freezing the estate until the Will is proven valid, heirs are identified and contacted, debts are paid, and conflicts resolved. At the end of the process, the assets are give to those named in the Will. But IRA’s, and other retirement accounts (such as Roth IRA’s, 401-K’s, 403-B’s, and the like) have named beneficiaries. The companies who administer these assets are contractually bound to give these assets to the named beneficiaries on those contracts. No possiblity of fraud; no probate. If evil nephew Fred asks Vanguard to give him the IRA, Vanguard won’t, unless Fred is the named beneficiary for that account. One caveat: if you named ‘my estate’ as the beneficiary, that would require a probate of retirement assets, so don’t do that.