Assets with death beneficiary designations can be quite helpful, including as part of an overall estate plan that will avoid probate. In some circumstances, though, they may come with certain pitfalls that can create problems. In those situations, there may be a better way, or a different planning tool that will better meet your needs. With complete estate planning, possibly including the use of trust planning, you may be able to protect your family more effectively from those pitfalls.
Chuck and Terri's story was, in many ways, a tragic one. The couple married and had a son, Conner, who was born in 1997. Chuck was 43 and Terri 29 at the time. In 2009, doctors diagnosed Terri with terminal cancer. A few years later, Chuck was also diagnosed with cancer, and his was terminal as well. Chuck's cancer was believed to be either more aggressive or more advanced, because the doctors expected him to die before Terri did. However, in the fall of 2013, Terri died suddenly and somewhat unexpectedly at age 45. Chuck lived another 10 months before passing away at age 60.
This unexpected series of events, and the order in which they occurred, mattered a great deal. Terri had a $600,000 life insurance policy. Chuck was the beneficiary under the policy. However, shortly before she died, Terri changed the beneficiary designation to name her sister, Amanda, and Chuck as co-beneficiaries. According to Amanda, she and Terri both promised each other that, if anything happened to either of them, the survivor would take care of the deceased sister's kids. At the time, though, Amanda had no idea that Terri would name her as a co-beneficiary of the life insurance policy.
After Terri's death, Chuck became concerned that Amanda was not going to use the life insurance money to take care of Conner, even though she had promised to. He went to court, asking the judge to place $270,000 of the life insurance proceeds in trust. (Chuck asserted that Terri wanted Amanda to keep $30,000 for herself and dedicate the remaining $270,000 of her half to Conner.) In court, while on the witness stand, Amanda actually asked, "If it's my money, what does it matter what I spend it on?"
The trial judge sided with Chuck, but the state court of appeals eventually ruled for Amanda. The problem was that a life insurance policy is legally a contract and the law is very specific that, if a contract is clear and not ambiguous, then it should be carried out as written. In this case, the insurance contract was clear that, when Terri died, the insurance company was to pay $300,000 outright to Chuck and $300,000 outright to Amanda. Whatever promises Amanda and Terri had made to each other, whatever documents Terri had handwritten stating her wishes… they were all irrelevant. The insurance policy beneficiary designation form clearly said that Chuck and Amanda were co-beneficiaries. That was all that mattered.
There was ample evidence that this outcome may not have been what Terri truly wanted. There was evidence that Terri's main focus was to provide for Conner. Almost certainly, Terri did not want Chuck, in his final months, to have to fight a court battle with Amanda over the life insurance money. The actual outcome of this situation certainly did not achieve those goals.
In many cases, there is a better way. One option would be the use of trusts as part of an estate plan. If, for example, someone like Terri wanted to dedicate her wealth to providing for her minor child, and was also dealing with the uncertainty of a terminally ill spouse, a trust might have done a better job achieving those goals. A person in a situation like Terri could, for example, choose to create a trust and name that trust as the beneficiary of the life insurance policy. This would then allow for greater flexibility. You could name your terminally ill spouse as the trustee of the trust but also name someone like a trusted sibling as the first successor trustee in the event that your spouse dies or becomes incapacitated. You could also, if you have a child in their mid teens (as Terri did,) create provisions in your trust to delay some or all of the distribution of the money, so that your child doesn't receive a six-figure lump-sum of money on his or her 18th birthday. The trust could clearly state whom the funds were to benefit, such as stating that the trust was for the benefit of your spouse during the spouse's lifetime and for your child thereafter.
Assets with death beneficiary designations can be useful tools in estate planning and avoiding probate. Sometimes, though, there is a better way. That's why it helps to plan carefully with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.