November 20

What You Must Know About Your Right to Your Spouse’s Retirement Benefits

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If you’re part of a blended family (meaning you are married with children from a prior marriage in the mix), you’re no stranger to the extra considerations and planning it takes to keep your family’s life running smoothly – from which parent your children will be with for the holidays to figuring out the schedule for a much-needed family vacation. You’ve also probably given some thought to what you want to happen to your assets and your family if something happens to you.

But what you might not have realized is this: If you don’t create a plan for your assets before you die, the law has its own plan for you that might not reflect your wishes for your assets, especially your retirement assets. And if you’re in a blended family, this can have a significant financial impact on the ones you love and even create expensive, long-term conflict.

This week, I explain how the law affects retirement distributions for married couples, and why you need to be extra careful with your retirement planning if you’re in a blended family to ensure your retirement account assets go to the right people in the right amounts after you’re gone.

Be Aware of How ERISA Affects 401K Distributions

If you’ve remarried, you and your new spouse have probably talked about updating the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts to reflect your blended family arrangement. (If you haven’t talked about it, you need to talk about it ASAP). Sometimes, people who are remarried decide to leave their retirement funds to their children from a prior marriage and leave other assets like their house and savings accounts to their current spouse. You may do this to avoid future conflict between your spouse and your children over your assets.

But even if you want to leave your retirement for just your children, if you’re married and your retirement account is a work-sponsored account, your children won’t inherit the entire account even if you name them as the sole beneficiaries.

That’s because the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) governs most employer-sponsored pensions and retirement accounts. Under ERISA, if you’re married at the time of your death, your spouse is automatically entitled to receive 50 percent of the value of your employer-sponsored plan – even if your beneficiary designations say otherwise.

The only time that your surviving spouse would not inherit half of your ERISA-governed retirement account is if your spouse signs an official Spousal Waiver saying they are affirmatively waiving their right to inherit 50 percent of the account, or if the account beneficiary is a Trust of which your spouse is a primary beneficiary.

IRAs Have Different Rules Than 401Ks

If you want your children to inherit more than 50 percent of your work-sponsored retirement benefits, and completing a Spousal Waiver isn’t an option, consider rolling the account into a personal IRA instead.

In contrast to 401(k)s and similar employer-sponsored plans, IRAs are controlled by state law instead of ERISA. That means that your spouse is not automatically entitled to any part of your IRA.

When you roll a 401(k) into an IRA, you gain the flexibility to name anyone you choose as the designated beneficiary, with or without your spouse’s consent.

On the other hand, if you want to ensure your spouse receives half of your retirement savings, make sure to include them as a 50 percent beneficiary or better yet, have your individual retirement account payout to a Trust instead. With a Trust, you can:

  • Document exactly how much of your retirement you want each of your loved ones to receive
  • Control when they receive the funds outright
  • Easily update and change the terms of your Trust without having to remember to update your financial accounts.

Beneficiary Designations Always Trump Your Will

Whether you have an employer-sponsored 401K or an IRA you manage yourself, there is one critical rule that everyone needs to know: beneficiary designations trump your Will.

A Will is an important estate planning tool, but most people don’t know that beneficiary designations override whatever your Will says about a particular asset.

For example, if your Will states that you want your retirement account to be passed on to your brother, but the beneficiary designation on the account says you want it to go to your sister, your sister will inherit the account, even though your Will says otherwise.

Similarly, let’s imagine that you get divorced and as part of your divorce decree your ex-spouse agrees that they will not have any right to your retirement fund. However, after the divorce, you forget to take their name off of the beneficiary designation for the account. If you die before updating the beneficiary designation, your former spouse will inherit your retirement account.

If you forget to update your ERISA-controlled account and have remarried, your current spouse would receive half of the account and your former spouse would receive the other half. That’s why it’s so important to work with an estate planning attorney who can make sure your accounts are set up with the proper beneficiary designations and ensure that your assets are passed on according to your wishes.

Work With An Attorney Who Makes Sure All Your Assets Will Be Passed On How You Want Them To

Understanding how the law affects different types of assets is essential to creating an estate plan. But there’s more to it than just having a lawyer – you need an attorney who takes the time to really understand your family and your assets so they can design a custom plan that achieves your goals for your assets and your legacy.

That’s why we help our clients create an inventory of all of their assets to ensure that every asset they hold is accounted for and passed on to their loved ones exactly as they want it to.

Learn more about how we serve our clients differently than most lawyers; schedule a complimentary call with us. We’d be honored to share how our unique process can help your family.

This article is a service of a Personal Family Lawyer® Firm. We don’t just draft documents; we ensure you make informed and empowered decisions about life and death, for yourself and the people you love. That's why we offer a Life & Legacy Planning Session™ , during which you will get more financially organized than you’ve ever been before and make all the best choices for the people you love. You can begin by calling our office today to schedule a Life & Legacy Planning Session™.

The content is sourced from Personal Family Lawyer® for use by Personal Family Lawyer® firms, a source believed to be providing accurate information. This material was created for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as ERISA, tax, legal, or investment advice. If you are seeking legal advice specific to your needs, such advice services must be obtained on your own separate from this educational material.

Proper estate planning can keep your family out of conflict, out of court, and out of the public eye. If you’re ready to create a comprehensive estate plan, contact us to schedule your Family Wealth Planning Session. Even if you already have a plan in place, we will review it and help you bring it up to date to avoid heartache for your family. Schedule online today.


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