What You Must Know About Your Right to Your Spouse’s Retirement Benefits
November 20, 2023
If you’re part of a blended family (meaning you are married with children from a prior marriage in the mix), you’re no stranger to the extra considerations and planning it takes to keep your family’s life running smoothly – from which parent your children will be with for the holidays to figuring out the schedule for a much-needed family vacation. You’ve also probably given some thought to what you want to happen to your assets and your family if something happens to you. But what you might not have realized is this: If you don’t create a plan for your assets before you die, the law has its own plan for you that might not reflect your wishes for your assets, especially your retirement assets. And if you’re in a blended family, this can have a significant financial impact on the ones you love and even create expensive, long-term conflict. This week, I explain how the law affects retirement distributions for married couples, and why you need to be extra careful with your retirement planning if you’re in a blended family to ensure your retirement account assets go to the right people in the right amounts after you’re gone.
Be Aware of How ERISA Affects 401K DistributionsIf you’ve remarried, you and your new spouse have probably talked about updating the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts to reflect your blended family arrangement. (If you haven’t talked about it, you need to talk about it ASAP). Sometimes, people who are remarried decide to leave their retirement funds to their children from a prior marriage and leave other assets like their house and savings accounts to their current spouse. You may do this to avoid future conflict between your spouse and your children over your assets. But even if you want to leave your retirement for just your children, if you’re married and your retirement account is a work-sponsored account, your children won’t inherit the entire account even if you name them as the sole beneficiaries. That’s because the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) governs most employer-sponsored pensions and retirement accounts. Under ERISA, if you’re married at the time of your death, your spouse is automatically entitled to receive 50 percent of the value of your employer-sponsored plan – even if your beneficiary designations say otherwise. The only time that your surviving spouse would not inherit half of your ERISA-governed retirement account is if your spouse signs an official Spousal Waiver saying they are affirmatively waiving their right to inherit 50 percent of the account, or if the account beneficiary is a Trust of which your spouse is a primary beneficiary.
IRAs Have Different Rules Than 401KsIf you want your children to inherit more than 50 percent of your work-sponsored retirement benefits, and completing a Spousal Waiver isn’t an option, consider rolling the account into a personal IRA instead. In contrast to 401(k)s and similar employer-sponsored plans, IRAs are controlled by state law instead of ERISA. That means that your spouse is not automatically entitled to any part of your IRA. When you roll a 401(k) into an IRA, you gain the flexibility to name anyone you choose as the designated beneficiary, with or without your spouse’s consent. On the other hand, if you want to ensure your spouse receives half of your retirement savings, make sure to include them as a 50 percent beneficiary or better yet, have your individual retirement account payout to a Trust instead. With a Trust, you can:
- Document exactly how much of your retirement you want each of your loved ones to receive
- Control when they receive the funds outright
- Easily update and change the terms of your Trust without having to remember to update your financial accounts.