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Colin Barry, MBA, P.Eng, CFP
Colin Barry, MBA, P.Eng, CFP

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Personal Wealth and Finance

Setting up your life insurance beneficiaries

April 1, 2024

It is wise to take a few extra steps to plan how you set up your beneficiaries on a life insurance policy.

Maximise Contingency Planning

In a few short words, the problem is this: minimal contingency planning. When applying for a policy, the basic beneficiary form gets you started as you purchase your plan.

You must think beyond naming primary and contingent beneficiaries to ensure that the right people get the benefit money at the right time. Most policies establish naming a wife and husband as each other’s beneficiary and their children as contingent beneficiaries while possibly naming a trustee until the children are at the age of majority.

But what if the surviving spouse remarries and the new spouse, unfortunately, spends the cash benefit for other purposes? This is one of many contingencies that should be spelt out in the basic insurance application.

Here are a few primary concerns

  • The surviving spouse gets paid the benefit but is, or marries, a spendthrift who might exhaust the funds recklessly, disallowing your family to live in financial security for the longer term.
  • The inheritance in the hands of a child destined for University can corrupt their determinant need for making an income or going to university or college. This can present a roadblock in the way of the child deciding to move to acquire a degree or job and helps create a lazy prodigal.
  • A child who lacks life experience, and investment knowledge, might make riskier decisions with a lot of money, not calculating the future need for educational expenses.
  • A child who is or could be prone to drug or alcohol addiction receiving a lot of cash could be placed into harm’s way, funding an addict’s lifestyle.
  • Lack of experience investing money sets up a financially naïve spouse or child who is the beneficiary of a large sum of money as prey to unscrupulous make-money-quick or Ponzi schemes.
  • If an advisor is not established ahead of time in a trust or a will, an unqualified person may find access to invest the funds unscrupulously and unethically and be unable to navigate a volatile market.
  • Younger children may need more beneficiary funds due to more time preceding the age of majority. In contrast, older mature or married children may already be educated and well-established. In the same vein of logic, concerning educating all of the children, the basic beneficiary form cannot deal with proper equalization of funds among children, some of whom may have already been successively educated by deceased parents when they were alive should they both later die and leave younger children.

Alternatives to establishing beneficiaries

Indeed, buy the life insurance policies needed and establish beneficiaries and the estate. Then hire a lawyer who can help you in the following ways:

  • Set Up Educational Trusts. Retain your life insurance proceeds in one pooling fund from which the children’s educational and maintenance expenses can be paid. A sum can also be divided among the beneficiaries equally.
  • Delay or Stagger Inheritance Distribution This plan allows for discretionary expenditures from the life insurance proceeds for specifically defined purposes. A child can receive their inheritance in phases staggered at specific amounts or percentages as the named child grows in investment and money management experience over time.
  • Lifetime Trusts This trust can assign money to spendthrifts or an addict or one with health or creditor issues allowing someone else to manage and distribute the funds only as needed. If the first beneficiaries die, money can be attributed to another beneficiary, such as a charity or grandkids.
  • Tax Planning in Trusts It is possible to set up a trust where the beneficiary controls it immediately, at a set age, or in stages but can distribute money at his discretion to various beneficiaries, such as his children. Such income taxed in the beneficiaries’ hands may be taxed at their rates, perhaps less than if monies were taken into income in one payment. Note: Because tax laws change, get professional guidance.
  • Survivorship Clauses A trust can achieve similar directives as a will can – requiring a minimum survival period before an heir receives money. This circumvents payment to heirs that may die shortly after you (due to an accident), allowing money to go to secondary beneficiaries.

Note: More beneficiary planning options can be explored with your lawyer if you are setting up a complicated estate plan. Review life insurance tax laws which may change with new legislation.


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