A:

Even when assets are divided following a divorce, in many cases, former spouses and heirs engage the services of attorneys and the courts to determine the beneficiaries of the retirement-plan assets of a deceased retirement account owner. This occurs when the deceased fails to update his or her beneficiary designation after a divorce or remarriage. Individuals who are recently divorced can save their beneficiaries the stress and legal fight by properly updating their beneficiary designations.

In your case, because the account holder has already died, the outcome may depend on the provisions in the plan document. Some documents provide that a beneficiary designation is revoked upon divorce. Some state laws include similar provisions.

If the account is a qualified plan, such as a profit sharing, money purchase, or defined benefit plan, the surviving spouse is usually the beneficiary by default.

To be sure, check with the custodian if it's an IRA, or check with the plan administrator it it's a qualified plan.

For related reading, see Getting A Divorce? Understand The Rules Of Dividing Plan Assets.

This question was answered by Denise Appleby.

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