Although in some situations the advantages outweigh the disadvantages when selecting beneficiaries, there are always exceptions.
What Is a Beneficiary?
Beneficiaries are individuals who you select to receive money, various other assets, or specific bequests (such as sentimental items) upon your death. You can name these individuals in estate planning documents such as a will.
Outdated Beneficiary Choices
The most common disadvantage is failing to review beneficiary choices regularly to assess whether they still meet your requirements or adjust to any changes that have occurred in your life. For example, perhaps you designated your spouse as the primary beneficiary of your retirement accounts and other non-probate assets. However, if you go through a divorce and forget to change these designations, your ex-spouse could still end up with a significant portion of these assets.
Another example may be where new relationships develop that did not exist when you initially made beneficiary designations. For example, you have had more children or remarried. Should you fail to update your beneficiary designations, you may inadvertently omit these loved ones from receiving a share of these assets when you really would have wanted them to receive something.
Failure to Name a Contingent Beneficiary
A related issue is failing to name secondary or contingent beneficiaries. What happens if you do not have a “backup” beneficiary? One of the main disadvantages is that an asset that could typically pass directly to persons outside of probate may now become an asset that has to be addressed through the probate process. This can create a long delay before those assets get to your loved ones.
Disadvantages can also arise if you name a minor as a beneficiary and that person is still a minor when you die. If this happens, an insurance company or retirement administrator may not have a way to handle the situation. It would be unable to distribute the funds until it receives directions from a court, or the minor reaches the age of majority (age 18 in most states).
Risks for Individuals Who Rely on Government Benefits
If your named beneficiary depends on government benefits at the time of your death, he or she could lose those benefits despite your best intentions. This is because certain public assistance programs require their enrollees to have specific income or asset limits.
A better alternative is to leave assets to a loved one who could be in this position through a supplemental needs trust.
This type of trust allows them to receive the assets without losing their eligibility for these programs. The trust also allows the assets to be used for the benefit of the beneficiary while still preserving the government benefits. Additionally, it can ensure that the assets are managed appropriately and used for the beneficiary's care.
Another consideration is that sometimes naming a beneficiary can convert an asset that was free from the reach of your creditors into an asset that is suddenly available to them.
For example, if a person names their estate as a beneficiary of their life insurance policy, not only does this put the asset into the jurisdiction of the probate court, but it also subjects the funds to your creditors and may be used very differently from what you had in mind. The funds may be used to pay off creditors or taxes owed by your estate.
Consult With an Expert
There are other potential downsides to naming beneficiaries to non-probate assets. However, not everyone may be impacted the same way. The best advice is always to seek help from your estate planning attorney prior to making any decisions.