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Planning Ahead—Have You Chosen Your Beneficiaries?

It's tempting to put off until tomorrow some of the important decisions about what happens to your retirement assets when you die. But it pays to plan ahead, especially for accounts that aren't transferred by will or trust. Start here: Make sure there are designated beneficiaries for any retirement savings plans and pensions you own or may be entitled to.

In many cases, your
employer-sponsored retirement
plan will require that you name
your spouse, if you have one, as
beneficiary at the time you begin
to participate.

Perhaps you have taken care of some of those concerns already, with a will or by setting up Power of Attorney. But there's something else you should do: Make sure you have named beneficiaries for any retirement savings plans, pensions and insurance products you may own or be entitled to.

Unlike your personal and real property or your taxable investment accounts, these assets aren't transferred by will or trust when you die. Instead, they are transferred to your beneficiaries, which can be an individual or institution.

In many cases, an employer-sponsored retirement plan—like a 401(k) or pension—requires that you name your spouse, if you have one, as beneficiary at the time you begin to participate. The only way to name someone else is to have your spouse sign a waiver giving up his or her rights to those assets. Otherwise, for IRAs or insurance policies, there are usually no rules around who your beneficiary may be. You can name family members, friends or an organization or institution such as a charity. In fact, you can even name more than one beneficiary for a single plan, a different beneficiary for each plan or the same beneficiary for several plans.

While you may think about choosing a beneficiary as a set-it-and-forget-it matter, this approach doesn't always apply. You'll want to update that information if your beneficiary passes away, or your life situation changes, perhaps through divorce or remarriage. Unlike a will, which may become invalid if you marry or divorce, a person named as beneficiary continues to have a right to your assets if you don't change the designation. Review your beneficiaries periodically to make sure those named are still appropriate. 

In any case, it may be a good idea to name contingent beneficiaries in case your first choice passes away before you do, can't be located or doesn't want your money (it does happen). It is often a good idea to consult tax and legal professionals with expertise in this area.

To learn more about saving and investing, visit the Investors section of FINRA.org.