Designated Beneficiary: What it is, How it Works, FAQ

What Is a Designated Beneficiary?

A designated beneficiary is a person who has been named to inherit an asset such as the balance of an individual retirement account (IRA), annuity, or life insurance policy after the death of the asset's owner. It is also known as a named beneficiary.

The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act has narrowed the rules for designated beneficiaries when it comes to required withdrawals from inherited retirement accounts. The new rules apply to the beneficiaries of account owners who die after December 31, 2019.

Key Takeaways

  • A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or financial account as the recipient of those assets in the event of the account holder's death.
  • A designated beneficiary is a living person. Non-person entities are not considered to be designated beneficiaries, even if named on a retirement account.
  • A designated beneficiary also falls outside of the five categories of eligible designated beneficiaries as defined by the SECURE Act.
  • The designated beneficiary generally has to file a claim with a copy of the death certificate to receive the assets.

Understanding the Designated Beneficiary

Under the SECURE Act, a designated beneficiary is someone named as a beneficiary on a retirement account and who does not fall into one of five categories of individuals classified as an eligible designated beneficiary (EDB). The designated beneficiary must be a living person. While estates, most trusts, and charities can inherit retirement assets, they are considered to be non-designated beneficiaries for the purposes of taxation and determining required withdrawals.

A designated beneficiary inherits the balance of an account, an annuity, or a life insurance policy when the account owner passes away. Needless to say, anyone with a life insurance policy or other assets should review the documents regularly and make any changes required by new circumstances, such as marriage, birth, death, or divorce.

Multiple beneficiaries can be named. Assets can be divided among more than one primary beneficiary. There also can be more than one secondary beneficiary. The primary beneficiary or beneficiaries are the first in line to receive the asset. The secondary or contingent beneficiary is next in line if the primary beneficiary dies before the owner of the asset, cannot be located, or refuses to accept the asset.

Designated beneficiaries may be revocable or irrevocable. If revocable, the owner of the asset can make changes. An irrevocable beneficiary has certain guaranteed rights that cannot be denied or amended.

Note that there are exceptions to the non-person entity rule for certain "see-through" trusts.

SECURE Act and Designated Beneficiaries of Retirement Accounts

As a result of the SECURE Act, there are three groups of beneficiaries based on the recipient's relationship to the original account owner, their age, and whether they are an individual or non-person entity. The three categories are eligible designated beneficiaries, designated beneficiaries, and non-designated beneficiaries. The five categories of individuals considered to be eligible designated beneficiaries are:

  1. The account owner's surviving spouse
  2. A child who is younger than 18 years of age
  3. A disabled individual
  4. A chronically ill individual
  5. A person not more than 10 years younger than the deceased IRA owner

If a living person who is named as a beneficiary of a retirement account does not fall into these five categories, they are considered to be a designated beneficiary.

10-Year Rule

Designated beneficiaries of inherited retirement accounts are subject to the 10-year rule. This means the remaining balance held by the inherited account must be withdrawn within 10 years following the account holder's death. There are no required minimum distributions (RMDs) for any given year, and recipients may choose the frequency and timing of withdrawals. However, the account must be fully depleted by Dec. 31 of the tenth year following the account holder's death.

This 10-year rule limits the time in which a beneficiary can benefit from tax-deferred growth. It ensures the retirement account's assets are withdrawn and therefore taxed within 10 years of the owner's death. Prior to the SECURE Act, retirement account holders were able to utilize an estate planning strategy referred to as the stretch IRA. The stretch IRA allowed the account to be passed down (potentially) for generations, as distributions were based on the life expectancy of the person taking withdrawals.

However, the 10-year rule does allow some flexibility in when the distributions are taken. Because there is no required minimum distribution for any one year, a designated beneficiary can take withdrawals when it best suits their lifestyle and tax planning needs.

Exceptions to the 10-year rule are for certain types of beneficiaries:

  • a surviving spouse
  • a disabled or chronically ill person
  • a child who hasn't reached the age of majority
  • a person not more than 10 years younger than the IRA account owner

These beneficiaries are not obligated to empty the IRA. But unless they can treat the account as their own (see "Special Rules for Surviving Spouses," below), they do have to take annual RMDs from it; the exact amount can be calculated based on their own life expectancy.

The SECURE Act distinguishes between an eligible designated beneficiary and other beneficiaries who inherit an account or IRA. Designated beneficiaries, who are not eligible designated beneficiaries, must withdraw the entire IRA by the 10th calendar year following the year of the employee or IRA owner’s post-2019 death. Non-designated beneficiaries must withdraw the entire account within 5 years of the employee or IRA owner’s death if distributions have not begun prior to death.

How to Collect

The designated beneficiary must make a claim to receive assets left to them as another person's designated beneficiary. The claim form will be supplied by the company that manages the asset. The form should be returned with a copy of the account holder's death certificate. This is available from the county or state in which the person lived.

State laws vary somewhat, but the company generally has up to 30 days to review the documentation and respond, either with an approval or with a request for additional information. Life insurance payments are normally paid out within 60 days of the filing of the claim.

Having a signed will in place is critically important. Otherwise, your designated beneficiary may face a long delay in getting life insurance or other assets.

What Makes a Beneficiary Designated?

A beneficiary is any individual or entity who receives some portion of an inherited estate. A designated beneficiary refers to a specific person or entity who has been named and documented by the owner of the estate before their death.

Who Can Inherit Qualified Retirement Accounts like IRAs?

If an individual dies with a qualified retirement account like an IRA or 401(k), only an eligible designated beneficiary (EDB), as defined by the law, can take possession of it. This must be an individual that is usually the surviving spouse, adult child, or a disabled or chronically ill individual who can benefit from the funds.

Who Can Be an Eligible Designated Beneficiary (EDB)?

An eligible designated beneficiary (EDB) must be an individual, and not a nonperson entity such as a trust, an estate, or a charity (which would be not designated beneficiaries).

There are five categories of individuals included in the EDB classification:

  1. The owner’s surviving spouse
  2. The owner’s child who is less than 18 years of age
  3. A disabled individual
  4. A chronically ill individual
  5. Any other individual who is not more than 10 years younger than the deceased IRA owner

In most instances, save for the exceptions below, an EDB must withdraw the balance from the inherited IRA account over the beneficiary’s life expectancy.

Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Congress. "H.R. 1994 - Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019: Definition of Eligible Designated Beneficiary."

  2. Congressional Research Service. "Inherited or 'Stretch' Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and the SECURE Act," Pages 1-2.

  3. Internal Revenue Service. "Internal Revenue Bulletin: 2022-11."

  4. Internal Revenue Service. "Publication 590-B (2021), Distributions from Individual Retirement Arrangements (IRAs)."

  5. Internal Revenue Service. “Retirement Topics — Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs).”

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