Why You Need to Check Your Beneficiaries Today

The recent near-simultaneous deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds shocked followers of film and pop culture.  Their deaths should also raise awareness about the importance of beneficiary planning.

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As most followers of popular culture are by now aware, actress Carrie Fisher, best known for her role as Princess Leia Organa in the Star Wars franchise, died unexpectedly on December 27 at the age of 60 after suffering a heart attack on board a flight several days earlier.  Her mother, actress Debbie Reynolds – who achieved fame as Gene Kelly’s co-star in Singin’ in the Rain, widely regarded as one of the best movie musicals of all timedied a day later, December 28, at the age of 84.

The simultaneous deaths of a parent and child are rare, but as brought to light in this case, not out of the realm of possibility.  Fisher’s brother and Reynolds’ only other child, Todd Fisher, and Fisher’s only daughter, Billie Lourd, stand to inherit the assets from both estates.  That presumes both Reynolds and Fisher had estate plans in place – though even that is never a certainty, as the death of Prince last year demonstrated.

One can assume that Fisher left most of her estate to her daughter, and that Reynolds left at least part of her estate to Fisher.  Since Fisher predeceased Reynolds, Reynolds’s estate plan should direct what happens to that share of Reynolds’s estate intended for Fisher.  It would be a safe assumption that Fisher’s share passes to Reynolds’s granddaughter and Fisher’s daughter, Lourd.

Reynolds and Fisher, both members of the Screen Actors Guild, would have SAG pensions.  Fisher was also a screenwriter, so one can assume she is eligible for Writers Guild retirement benefits as well.  Depending on the form of pension payment chosen, these plans may have benefits for heirs, and one hopes that beneficiary designations for any such plan were on file and up-to-date.

All of this is conjecture, but the point is: make sure your beneficiaries are up-to-date.  Take a look at:

  • Your will and living trust – If these have not been updated in a while, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney and make sure these documents are consistent with your wishes, including your beneficiaries.
  • Retirement plans, including employer plans and IRAs – Retirement plans generally do not pass via will or trust but rather via beneficiary designation, meaning, you need to name specific beneficiaries and have those designations on file with the plan.  It is important to name not just one or more primary beneficiaries, but also one or more “contingent” beneficiaries who would inherit the retirement plan assets if both you and your primary beneficiaries are deceased.
  • Life insurance policies – If you have a living trust, it is generally advisable to name your trust as the beneficiary of your life insurance.  If you don’t, follow the instructions for retirement plans noted above and name individual primary and contingent beneficiaries.
  • Investment accounts – Non-retirement investment accounts should be titled to your living trust if you have one.  If not, the investment firm or custodian should be able to add a designated beneficiary.

One death in a family is bad enough; two at the same time is unbelievably tragic.  But a little work today to check that your beneficiaries are up-to-date can avoid even more tragedy and turmoil at a time when that’s the last thing anyone needs.

Questions or comments?  Contact me on Twitter @juanros or LinkedIn.

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