Surprise: Your Last Will Isn’t The Last Word

Wills & Wellness Founder and Family

By Bonnie Bowles, co-founder of Wills & Wellness Estate Planning

Hear me out. I’ll admit that most lawyers get it wrong when it comes to understanding the legal weight of your will — and I used to be one of them. I used to do something that, today, I would absolutely cringe over. But I’ve learned my lesson. 

My clients have taught me a lot over the past five years. They have brought me every estate planning scenario imaginable. I’ve had a chance to help them enjoy their vacations without worry, sleep better at night, or go into childbirth or surgery with peace of mind — and I would like to do the same for you.

So here’s something I’ve learned that you need to know: Your beneficiary designations override your will.

I realize “beneficiary designations” is not a topic you might typically read about. But you already have beneficiary designations whether you know it or not. And it’s your children, or other people close to you, who will either be greatly benefitted – or greatly damaged – by your beneficiary designations.

You have beneficiaries designated if you own anything like:

  • Life insurance policies
  • Retirement accounts

How do I know this? Because when you set up your life insurance policy or retirement account, the application you filled out asked you to name your beneficiaries.

Even if you’ve written your last will or you plan to, the reality is that the choices you’ve made for these designations will override your will.

This means that if you’ve named a minor child as the beneficiary of your life insurance policy or retirement account, those funds will be paid to your minor child directly — but with an important caveat: They will only be paid out once a probate judge (a stranger) decides who handles their money until your child is 18. A judge can choose anyone they want – not necessarily a close relative or someone you trust.

And this happens REGARDLESS of what your last will says.

In other words, your will may say that assets left to your minor children are managed by your mom until your children reach age 25, but when a minor child is named as beneficiary of an asset, your will doesn’t apply to this asset, a judge doesn’t have to choose your mom, AND your child gets everything at age 18 (not 25). Sounds crazy, right?

Hello, uncertainty and fees.

I once helped a mom with two young children in a case where her ex-husband (the children’s father) left everything to his two children, but it was all through beneficiary designations. But he didn’t clarify who was in charge of the minor children’s inheritance. And while this may sound crazy, the law says the surviving mom was not automatically the one put in charge. She had to go to court, make her case about why she was responsible enough for the job, and then wait for a judge to decide. And she had to do this in two separate court proceedings because there is a separate court proceeding for each child. Now that she has been appointed, she has to check in with the court every single year until each child turns 18, and tell the court exactly how the inheritance has been spent (or invested) over the last year.

If her ex-husband had known that his beneficiary designations would override his will, maybe he would have made it easier on his children. A really sad and complicated situation could have been avoided.

And this doesn’t just happen with minors. Something unintended can happen to you as an adult child as well.

I once helped two adult children whose mother had set up a will (not drafted by me) to go 50-50 to her children, but for her daughter, she had set up a special needs trust in the will. Her daughter wasn’t able to be in charge of her own money due to a disability, so her mom thought that a special needs trust would take care of her daughter. And she was right. Except that the mom didn’t realize that EVERY single asset she owned already named her two children as 50-50 beneficiaries and that this trumped her will. This meant that literally not one single asset went into the special needs trust she set up for her daughter because the beneficiary designations took precedence. Instead, her daughter received her half outright, without the special needs protection – exactly what her mom didn’t want to happen.

That brings me back to my first point: I used to be one of those lawyers who didn’t discuss beneficiary designations with my estate planning clients. I would simply draft a will because someone asked me to. They had always heard “you need a will,” so they got one. Back then, I didn’t have enough experience to ask about their beneficiary designations.

Today, I would never skip that part.

If someone drafts a will or trust for you, and you have minor children and well thought-out provisions for who is in charge of the money left to them, but then that person skips over beneficiary designations, your estate plan is worth nothing, whether you paid $200 or $20,000 for that plan. Your children would have their money paid out directly, forcing them into a court proceeding that your plan tried to avoid.

Sometimes when my clients come in, they have their parents, siblings, or even exes still named as beneficiaries even though they are re-married or have children now. After you pass away, there is absolutely nothing that can be done to change who receives your life insurance and retirement accounts if you haven’t updated your beneficiary designations. No one can force a named beneficiary to not receive the funds, no matter what life changes have happened in the meantime.

So you can see how important your beneficiary designations are.

Here’s what you can do today to avoid this:

  • Review your current beneficiary designations ASAP. If you don’t have a copy of your beneficiary designations, call your financial institution to get a copy.
  • If anyone is named as a beneficiary who you wouldn’t want to be the recipient of that asset, update your beneficiary designations immediately.
  • If you have minor children and are considering naming them as beneficiaries of anything, join our free “Estate Planning FB Live” Facebook group presentation on Tuesday, April 25, 10am-11:30am to learn more. 
  • Finish all of your estate planning after watching our helpful FB Live video.

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Bonnie Bowles is the co-founder of Wills & Wellness Estate Planning, an Estate Planning Attorney, and an Organized Wife & Mom of four kids. She has helped hundreds of clients gain peace of mind with their estate plan using her comprehensive, personalized, and in-depth service that addresses every single if-then scenario you could come up with.

When she started, she had no idea that legal documents alone wouldn’t cut it to fully protect her clients. But as she handled more and more probate cases over the years, the harsh reality of beneficiary designations became fully clear.

Bonnie’s specialty is knowing how to make sure your beneficiary designations do exactly what you want them to do in relation to your estate plan – instead of causing unintended, harmful consequences for those you love.

In her Facebook Live presentation, Bonnie will teach you exactly what you need to know about putting in place an estate plan that is completely harmonized with your beneficiary designations and personalized to your family.

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