A beneficiary designation or joint title can override your will

Inattention to beneficiary designations and jointly titled assets can quickly unravel your estate plan. Suppose, for example, that your will provides for all of your property to be divided equally among your three children. But what if your IRA, which names the oldest child as beneficiary, accounts for half of the estate? In that case, the oldest child will inherit half of your estate plus a one-third share of the remaining assets — hardly equal.

The same goes for jointly owned property. When you die, the surviving owner takes title to the property regardless of the terms of your will. Unfortunately, many people don’t realize that their wills don’t control the disposition of nonprobate assets.

What are nonprobate assets?

Nonprobate assets generally are transferred automatically at death according to a beneficiary designation or contract. So they override your will. They include life insurance policies, retirement plans and IRAs, as well as joint bank or brokerage accounts. Even savings bonds come with beneficiary forms.

To ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes, review beneficiary designations and property titles regularly, particularly after significant life events such as a marriage or divorce, the birth of a child, or the death of a loved one.

What about POD and TOD designations?

Payable-on-death (POD) and transfer-on-death (TOD) designations provide a simple and inexpensive way to transfer assets outside of probate. POD designations can be used for bank accounts and certificates of deposit. TOD designations can be used for stocks, bonds, brokerage accounts and, in many states, even real estate.

Setting one up is as easy as providing a signed POD or TOD beneficiary designation form. When you die, your beneficiaries just need to present a certified copy of the death certificate and their identification to the bank or brokerage, and the money or securities are theirs.

However, just like other beneficiary designations, POD and TOD designations can backfire if they’re not carefully coordinated with the rest of your estate plan. Too often, people designate an account as POD or TOD as an afterthought, without considering whether it may conflict with their wills, trusts or other estate planning documents.

Another potential problem with POD and TOD designations is that, if you use them for most of your assets, the assets left in your estate may be insufficient to pay debts, taxes or other expenses. Your executor would then have to initiate a proceeding to bring assets back into the estate.

Whether you have large retirement accounts or life insurance policies, hold joint accounts or use POD or TOD designations as part of your estate plan, we can review the rest of your plan to identify potential conflicts.