Man’s mistake cost his children $400,000 of an IRA inheritance

inheritanceSuch a mistake could happen to any of us. Following the story in the next post are tips to avoid this happening to you and your loved ones.

Before Leonard Smith lost his battle with cancer in 2008, he worked with his financial advisors and attorneys to make sure his children received the balance of his retirement funds when he died.

A single mistake, however, thwarted his well-laid plans. Family members realized a year after he died that his IRA beneficiary form was filled out incorrectly. Instead of specifically listing the names of his children along with the percentages designated to each heir, Smith wrote: “To be distributed pursuant to my last will and testament,” where the disbursement of funds was spelled out.

But Smith’s failure to complete the form correctly invalidated the document, making his surviving spouse the beneficiary by default.

“I had no idea that a will could be trumped by an IRA beneficiary form,” Deborah Smith-Marez, 50, Leonard’s daughter, told Yahoo Finance.

Smith-Marez and her siblings fought in court to recover the money, but the court awarded the $400,000 in the IRA to their father’s wife, who married Smith two months before he died.

Like Smith-Marez, many Americans are unaware that long-forgotten beneficiary forms can override wills and undermine their loved ones’ intentions.
How does this happen? Beneficiary forms are meant to be a straightforward method for heirs to bypass the probate process and receive funds in a timely manner. But sometimes account holders forget they’ve filled out these forms and fail to update them with major life changes.
Your estate is governed separately from your accounts with beneficiary designations, which include retirement accounts, life insurance policies, bank accounts, certificates of deposit, stocks, annuity contracts, bonds, and mutual funds. So if your last will and testament designates one person as the beneficiary and your IRA designates someone else, the IRA will outrank stipulations in your will.

Americans now store more and more of their wealth in retirement accounts, with $6.5 trillion held in IRAs, and $5.9 trillion in employer-based defined contribution plans like 401(k)s, according to the Investment Company Institute — all of which require beneficiary forms to designate recipients upon the account holder’s passing.

Unfortunately, there are no automatic reminders to update these forms on a regular basis – the account holder has the responsibility to keep them current and valid. (tips in next post.)

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