Property that is contractual in nature, such as life insurance, annuities, and retirement accounts, passes to heirs by beneficiary designation. Typically, all you have to do is fill out a form and sign it. Beneficiaries can be persons or entities, such as a charity or a trust, and you can name multiple beneficiaries to share the proceeds. You should name primary and contingent beneficiaries.
Caution: You shouldn't name minor children as beneficiaries. You can, however, name a guardian to receive the proceeds for the benefit of the minor child.
You should consider the income and estate tax ramifications for your heirs and your estate when naming a beneficiary. For example, proceeds your beneficiaries receive from life insurance are generally not subject to income tax, while your beneficiaries will have to pay income tax on proceeds received from tax-deferred retirement plans (e.g., traditional IRAs). Check with your financial planning professional to determine whether your beneficiary designations will have the desired results.
Be sure to re-evaluate your beneficiary designations when your circumstances change (e.g., marriage, divorce, death of beneficiary). You can't change the beneficiary with your will or a trust. You must fill out and sign a new beneficiary designation form.
Caution: Some beneficiaries can't be changed. For example, a divorce decree may stipulate that an ex-spouse will receive the proceeds.
Tip: Certain bank accounts and investments also allow you to name someone to receive the asset at your death.