IRA Inheritance Disasters: A Case Study

One point I try to emphasize regularly in my newsletter and web site is the importance of the beneficiary designation form for IRAs, pensions, annuities, and a few other assets. Yes, a will or living trust are very important to your estate plan. They do not, however, control the disposition of all your assets. Assets that avoid the probate process are not controlled by your will or trust. Only the beneficiary designation form on file with the IRA sponsor or other custodian of the assets determines who receives the assets after you.

A recent decision from the U.S. Supreme Court shows how important it is to keep your beneficiary forms up to date.

William Kennedy worked at DuPont and had a wife and daughter. He named his wife as beneficiary on the retirement plan's designation form and did not name a contingent beneficiary. Decades later, he and his wife divorced, and Mrs. Kennedy waived her rights to Mr. Kennedy's retirement benefits as part of the settlement. The waiver was not in the form of a qualified domestic relations order as defined in the tax law, which the plan would be required to follow. Since the waiver was not a QDRO, the plan documents controlled the account.

Unfortunately, Mr. Kennedy never changed his beneficiary designation form with DuPont. (He did change the designation form for another retirement plan at DuPont, naming his daughter as beneficiary.) He retired in 1998 and began receiving benefits. He died in 2001. Dupont then paid $402,000 to the former Mrs. Kennedy as beneficiary of the account.

The daughter sued DuPont, saying her father clearly intended that his ex-wife not inherit the retirement benefits. The ex-wife, she said, was compensated by other means and waived any rights to the benefits.

The Supreme Court held DuPont had no responsibility to the daughter. DuPont was bound to follow the employee's instructions on the forms filed with the employer, no matter how old and out-of-date they might seem. The ex-wife's waiver of her rights to the benefits did not amount to an assignment of the rights to the daughter. It was the employee’s job to update the forms if he changed his mind. The plan administrator is not able or required to review anything else to determine who should receive the benefits. Kennedy v. Plan Administrator for DuPont Savings and Investment Plan, US Supreme Court, Jan. 26, 2009.

The bottom line as we have said many times is your beneficiary designation forms control what happens to your retirement benefits, and you need to keep those forms up to date. This is true for retirement plans, annuities, life insurance, and other non-probate assets. You need to review the beneficiary designations at least every couple of years or when there is a major life event. Keep copies of the forms and write “superceded” or something similar on out-of-date forms, in case the custodian loses the forms. Be sure your executor knows where to find your copies of the forms.

 Bob Carlson is editor of the monthly newsletter Retirement Watch and the web site He also is author of numerous books and reports, including The New Rules of Retirement and Invest Like a Fox…Not Like a Hedgehog.

Posted 04-10-2009 4:55 PM by Bob Carlson
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