How to choose a beneficiary
When you sign up for a retirement plan, you’re always asked to fill out a beneficiary designation form. And while choosing who gets your money when you’re gone may seem simple, there are a number of things you should consider before making that important decision.
Choose your beneficiary carefully
For most married people, the answer is easy: my spouse. (In fact, the law requires them to be your primary beneficiary unless they waive their role in writing.) As your beneficiary, they have the ability to roll the account over and treat it like his or her own. That means they can continue to make contributions to the account if they want and don’t have to start taking distributions right away.
If you choose a non-spouse as your beneficiary, be aware that the same rules don’t apply. Non-spouse beneficiaries cannot roll over an inherited retirement account into their own IRA, and can only wait five years after your death to take the money out. They can take all the money at once or they can elect lifetime distributions.
Understand that your beneficiary designation trumps your will
If you decide you want to name someone different to inherit your retirement account, but only change it in your will, it will still go to the person you designated for your plan. Your plan’s designation form always takes precedence over a will.
If you’re leaving the money to a minor, choose a custodian
You can leave your retirement money to your children, but make sure they’re ready for it when they get it. If you don’t designate a custodian for minor children, the courts will do it for you, and that person may not be aware of what you wanted your kids to do with that money. Maybe you were leaving it to them so they can buy a house one day or help pay for college. The only way to ensure that the money is used how you want it, is to work with an attorney to put together a will or estate plan and spell it out.
To maximize your legacy, follow the rules
Depending on the type of plan you have, you may need to take minimum distributions at some point. For a 401(k), you’ll need to take required minimum distributions from your plan, starting at age 70 ½. If you don’t, you can end up paying an extra 50% penalty on the amount you were supposed to take. So, instead of being able to reinvest that money for your heirs or give it directly to them, you’ll pay that amount to Uncle Sam. For a 403(b) plan, distributions can start as soon as age 55 if you’re no longer working. For a 457(b) plan, there is no age requirement, but you’ll need to be separated from service when you start taking distributions from your plan.
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