Naming Beneficiaries: 7 Mistakes to Avoid!

financial mistakeDo you intend to leave a legacy? Utilizing life insurance and selecting policy beneficiaries for your policies and/or other accounts makes leaving legacy gifts simple, keeping them out of probate or the state courts. That is… unless you make a critical mistake. We wrote this beneficiary checklist so you won’t!

You’ve put a legacy into place that assures loved ones and/or your favorite charities will receive monetary gifts according to your wishes. But there are a handful of mistakes we see people make when it comes to naming beneficiaries or keeping them up-to-date.

The Beneficiary Checklist

Follow the seven rules (plus two tips to stay updated) when naming beneficiaries to avoid unintended consequences!

1. Always keep policy and account beneficiaries up-to-date.

Often estate plans are updated only once a year at most. But when there is a death, divorce or other major change in the family, don’t wait! And note: a phone call to your life insurance company or bank may not be enough. Some companies still require signed paperwork, and be warned: it could take some time to generate, receive, complete and return the necessary paperwork. (We know someone who passed away while trying to remove his ex-wife as the beneficiary of a small policy.)

2. Always name secondary and tertiary beneficiaries.

keep policy and account beneficiaries up-to-dateLet’s say your spouse is your only beneficiary. What happens if you and your spouse are in an accident and neither of you survive? You would want to make sure there are other beneficiaries!

An ideal beneficiary could be a trust that would receive and disburse the death benefit to other heirs and/or charities. And whether you have a trust or not, you’ll want to keep all beneficiaries and instructions up-to-date.

3. Never name minor children as beneficiaries. Put a trust or guardian in place as beneficiary.

Don’t even think about naming children as direct beneficiaries of life insurance! The insurance company would be unable to distribute the funds to a minor and it would end up in the courts. (You can name a minor as beneficiary to a bank account, but be cautious about this if the balance is high.)

Ideally, a trust will distribute monies after the child is old enough to receive the funds. Depending on the amount… you may want several disbursements over a period of years. If hiring an estate planning attorney to put a trust into place isn’t a possibility for you, a good temporary solution is to have a guardian named as beneficiary, or to put a simple trust into place yourself with (an app created by lawyers).

4. Never name your estate as your life insurance beneficiary.

This is a common mistake that should always be avoided! Naming your estate as the beneficiary subjects the life insurance proceeds to probate, creditors, and potentially taxes. Again, a trust can be a good solution.

5. Always specify the details.

Always specify the detailsDon’t be unclear about your intentions or leave anything up to interpretation. When you name beneficiaries, don’t just say “my children.” List names, Social Security numbers and addresses/contact information. Don’t make the insurance company launch a search. (This contact information should also be periodically updated, when appropriate.)

Want to distribute proceeds equally to multiple heirs? When naming multiple beneficiaries, specify whether you want the money divided per capita (per head) or “per stirpes” (by branch of the family).

Example: You have three children. Your first child has no children. Your second has two children. The third has four children. All of the children are minors and cannot currently receive proceeds. Do you want your three children to receive equal amounts, or do you wish for each grandchild to also receive equal inheritances (perhaps with your adult children as trustees) to be distributed later? There’s a big difference!

6. Avoid naming beneficiaries dependent on government assistance as direct beneficiaries!

A financial inheritance can disqualify a disabled or otherwise dependent person from receiving benefits. (This could be disability benefits, Medicaid benefits, subsidized housing or assisted living, or other benefits.) Why does this matter? It can be extremely disruptive and may subject them to a new waiting period or waiting list to re-qualify for benefits again when the inheritance is spent down. And even a small gift might force someone whose benefits are tied to their housing to move. Chances are—that’s not your intention!

Instead, you can create a “special needs trust” to support a special needs child, dependent, or other person without disqualifying them from receiving assistance. This would allow a trustee to use the monies to help them in other ways, paying for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.

7. Don’t assume your will trumps the life insurance policy.

Don’t assume your will trumps the life insurance policyThe life insurance company will pay proceeds to the beneficiaries you name on your policy. If you intend to make changes, you must make the changes with the life insurance company.

Ideally, the instructions in your will and/or a trust and paperwork you filled out with your life insurance company will all match. When they don’t, a will or trust won’t override the beneficiary designation on the life insurance policy.

Two methods to keep your beneficiary designations up to date.

We like this suggestion from that covers “How to Review Beneficiary Designations”:

Make a list of each retirement account, life insurance policy, and annuity that you have. Add two columns to your list: one for the beneficiary and one for a date. For each account or policy write down the beneficiary and the date it was last updated. In addition to a primary beneficiary, you should also name a contingent beneficiary. This means if the primary beneficiary predeceases you, you have already specified who the account should then go to.

Keep this list in a binder or file folder along with your other important documents. Regardless of any changes, make it a habit of pulling this binder out once a year and reviewing the information in it.

And again, if you need to update a beneficiary, contact the company. They will give you instructions for changing your beneficiary.

Another strategy we like is naming a revocable trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy and other assets. You can then update the trust at any time to change instructions for disbursing life insurance proceeds. This prevents having to fill out paperwork with the life insurance company. Of course, other assets and different types of assets can also be included in the trust. However, naming a trust as the beneficiary of an IRA has pros and cons, as taxes and required minimum distributions must be considered.

Finally, it’s important to keep your life insurance itself up-to-date! Has your income increased? It is time to insure a child or grandchild? Can you take advantage of a convertibility clause to turn all or part of a temporary term policy into permanent whole life? It might be time for a new policy. (Remember… whole life insurance isn’t a “cost”—it is one of the best ways to save and build an asset that can be used in many ways—sometimes by multiple generations!)

Consult your Prosperity Economics™ Advisor for help with your life insurance needs or with questions about naming beneficiaries. If you do not currently have an advisor well-versed with whole life insurance, contact us for assistance.


This beneficiary checklist was adapted and expanded from a section in our newest book: Perpetual Wealth: How to Use “Family Financing” to Build Prosperity and Leave a Legacy for Generations by Kim D. H. Butler and Kate Phillips. Watch for an release of this title in the near future.

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