Have You Determined a Beneficiary for Your Retirement Plan?

Paul McEwan | November 11th, 2011

A single dad wanted to designate his two children as beneficiaries of his retirement benefits. He mailed his beneficiary designation form to his employer with a cover letter explaining his wishes. When he died, the benefits administrator noticed the designation form wasn’t signed. Should the plan assets pass to the estate or the children?

Plan sponsors, vendors and benefits professionals recommend that participants in qualified retirement plans periodically review and update their beneficiary information. Incomplete designations or no designated beneficiary can cause a number of issues upon a participant’s death.

When a beneficiary is not clearly documented or is disputed by family members, the resolution isn’t so clear. ERISA preempts state law if the law relates to an employee benefit plan. However, circuit courts have rendered diverse opinions regarding ERISA’s preemption of state law, ruling in favor of state law in some cases and in favor of ERISA in others.

Plan sponsors can help plan participants avoid the inevitable conflict among beneficiaries by reminding them to keep beneficiary designation forms up-to-date and properly executed. This includes:

  • an annual review of beneficiary information. Annual enrollment in welfare benefit plans is a good time to have all employees review their beneficiary designation forms.
  • execution of a properly signed beneficiary designation form should changes be necessary.
  • denoting clearly if two beneficiaries are named as primary beneficiaries, upon the death of one primary beneficiary, whether assets to be transferred to heirs or paid only to the surviving beneficiary.
  • for plans that outsource plan recordkeeping, it is a best practice to keep beneficiary designation forms with the employee personnel file.

Your accounting professional can help you establish best practices when it comes to keeping beneficiary forms updated. Another primary fiduciary issue you may seek assistance with is periodically comparing services and plan fees to a benchmark of similarly sized plans. In most cases, the process results in a significant savings to the plan participants. It is important that the benchmark process be rigorous and coordinated by an objective and trusted advisor, not by an investment sales person trying to sell an investment product or service.

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