Retirement brochure  


Choosing Beneficiaries for Your Retirement Account

Naming your beneficiaries

Choosing beneficiaries for your retirement accounts

Though saving as much as possible in your retirement account is important, do not lose sight of one of the most important financial decisions you will make: determining the beneficiaries of your account. Without careful consideration, your decision may have unexpected tax and estate planning implications.

The beneficiary designated on any retirement account supersedes the instructions found in a will or a trust. Understand that not all beneficiaries are treated alike. When choosing your beneficiaries, you should know the options that are available to them when they inherit your retirement account.

This is a brief introductory overview to some typical beneficiary designations. Naming beneficiaries for your retirement accounts is an important first step in your estate planning. This brochure is a general guide and is not meant to replace legal counsel. Please consult with an attorney if you have questions regarding beneficiary designations on your account.

Naming primary beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries

Your primary beneficiaries will be entitled to receive any undistributed assets in your account following your death. They will share equally in your account unless you specify different percentages. If a beneficiary predeceases you, his or her share of your account shall be divided proportionately among the surviving beneficiaries.

Your contingent beneficiaries will be entitled to receive any undistributed assets in your account only if you have no surviving primary beneficiaries at the time of your death. If there are no surviving primary beneficiaries, your contingent beneficiaries will share equally in your account unless you specify different percentages. Example:


  • Spouse—100%

Contingent Beneficiary:

  • Son—100%

Scenario: If your spouse predeceases you, your son would receive any undistributed assets in the account.

Your spouse as primary beneficiary

Most people voluntarily name their spouse as their primary beneficiary. Spousal beneficiaries have the greatest flexibility regarding distribution options. They can keep the account with WEA Member Benefits, liquidate all or part of the account, or they can roll the account over to their own retirement plan or IRA account. Rolling it over may be advantageous if your spouse is younger than you, as your spouse may defer receiving distributions until his or her own required distribution date. In certain states, you are not required to name your spouse as a beneficiary of your 403(b) or IRA account. However, if your state is a marital property state, your spouse could claim their right to 50% of your account, even if he/she is not named as a beneficiary.

Naming someone other than your spouse

You may name anyone as a beneficiary of your account. If you choose to name someone other than a spouse, it is important to know their options. If the individual is an eligible designated beneficiary (surviving spouse, a minor child of the deceased owner, disabled or chronically ill individual or any other person who is not more than 10 years younger than the deceased account holder), the individual has the option to take RMDs based on their life expectancy using the Single Life Table. All other beneficiaries are required to withdraw all assets from the beneficiary account by December 31 of the 10th anniversary year of the original account owner’s death.  Certain beneficiaries are also required to take annual life expectancy payments until the required full liquidation date.

An individual does have the option to liquidate the account prior to the required distribution date.

Naming a trust

Although a trust may not have the flexibility available to the spouse and other persons, naming a trust can give you more control over your assets after you have passed away. The trust must be set up before naming the trust as beneficiary. The administrator of the trust then distributes the assets according to the trust directions. If a trust is set up under very specific rules, the beneficiaries of the trust may be eligible for the same treatment as a spouse and other individuals. These requirements can be very complicated. You should consult with a qualified advisor before naming a trust as beneficiary.

Naming a charity

If you have already provided for your heirs and you have charitable inclinations, naming a charity is an option for you. Generally, a before-tax 403(b) and deductible Traditional IRAs are subject to tax on all distributions withdrawn from retirement accounts. However, an exception may apply to direct distributions to qualified charities.

Naming your estate

WEA Member Benefits generally discourages participants from naming their estate as a beneficiary on 403(b) or IRA accounts as this produces unfavorable distribution options and makes your retirement funds subject to probate. Probate assets are all assets included in your estate that do not have named beneficiaries. The probate process can be an expensive and time-consuming process. If you fail to name a beneficiary on your account, your account will be paid to your estate.

Review your beneficiary designations annually

As you experience changes in your life, do not forget to review your beneficiary designations. Remember, your beneficiary designations take precedence over your will. Many people fail to change their beneficiary designations after a marriage or divorce. Be sure to review your designations annually to ensure they are current and in line with your intentions. You may want to consult your attorney to ensure that you understand all aspects of your decision.

TSA 3438-240-0223 (W)

Effective February 2023. Policies and programs described are subject to change at any time.