Why are Contingent Beneficiaries Important?

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Posted on: September 20, 2023 | by: Graber & Johnson Law Group, LLC
When planning your estate rarely will you experience difficulty naming your initial beneficiary or beneficiaries for your will, IRA’s or life insurance.

If you’ve been married or in a longstanding relationship, it’s almost certain your initial beneficiary will be your spouse or partner. If you have children, it’s likely an easy decision to make them contingent or successor beneficiaries to your estate. More often than not, children inherit equally, explains the article “PLANNING AHEAD: The problems we have naming contingent beneficiaries” from The Mercury.

To avoid conflict, parents often decide to name children equally, even if they’d prefer a greater share to go to one child over another, usually because of a greater need. This is, of course, a matter of individual preference.

However, as you move down the line in naming a successor or contingent beneficiaries, you may encounter some unexpected stumbling blocks.

If there is a beneficiary who is disabled, whether a child, grandchild or more distant relative, or even a spouse, you have to determine if naming them is a good idea. If the disabled individual is receiving Medicaid or other government assistance, an inheritance could cause this person to become ineligible for local, state, or federal government benefits. An estate planning attorney with knowledge of special needs planning will help you understand how to help your loved one without risking their benefits.

A Supplemental Needs Trust may be in order, or a Special Needs Trust. If the person’s only benefit is Social Security Disability—different from Supplemental Security Income or some others—they may be free to inherit without a trust and will not impact benefits. Social Security Disability recipients cannot work in “substantial gainful employment.”

Another issue in naming successor and contingent beneficiaries is the choice of a trustee or manager to handle funds if a beneficiary cannot receive benefits directly. A grandparent will sometimes be reluctant to name a son-in-law or a daughter-in-law as trustees for minors if their daughter or son predeceases and the inheritance is intended for a minor or disabled grandchildren. The grandparents may be concerned about how the funds will be used or how well or poorly the person has handled financial matters in the past.

The same concern may be at issue for a child. A trust can be structured with specific parameters for a grandchild regarding the use of funds. If a supplemental needs trust is established, the trustee must understand clearly what they can and cannot do.

What happens if you’ve run out of beneficiaries? For those with small families or who live into their 90s, many family members and friends have passed before them. These seniors may be more vulnerable to scams or new “friends” whose genuine interest is in their assets. In these cases, an estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney will need to consider this when mapping out the distribution of their estate, however large or small, to follow their wishes.

Reference: The Mercury (Aug. 28, 2023) “PLANNING AHEAD: The problems we have naming contingent beneficiaries”

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