Assets can transfer to your heirs in one of two ways when you die. They can transfer by will, which includes probate court and public filing of related documents, or they can transfer by contract.
The advantages of having your assets transfer by contract include:
Examples of assets that transfer by contract include accounts or assets titled Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship, Transfer on Death and Pay on Death accounts, Life Insurance and Annuity contracts, Trusts, and your IRA and 401k accounts if you complete the beneficiary forms correctly.
When you first establish an IRA or 401k, an annuity or life insurance contract, you are provided a form to name beneficiaries. If you fail to complete these forms the assets will usually pass back into your estate and become part of the probate process. By naming a beneficiary or beneficiaries you can let these assets transfer by contract. You should also name contingent beneficiaries and choose whether you want the assets to transfer per stirpes or per capita. By filling out these beneficiary forms you are insuring that your wishes are honored after your death.
Many people name only a spouse as a beneficiary. If the couple have children or grand children they wish to provide for they should consider making them contingent beneficiaries to preserve the tax benefits of an IRA (however if the children or grandchildren are minors be sure a guardian has been named or the funds will be encumbered until the courts name a guardian).
Currently only surviving spouses can transfer assets from their deceased spouse's 401k to their own IRA, but the recently enacted Pension Protection Act of 2006 will extend that privilege to any beneficiary after 2007.
The bottom line is beneficiary forms are an integral and important part of your estate plan. Choosing the right way to transfer these assets can save time and money, but can also be confusing. If you are unsure how to proceed choose a professional to help you, but don't delay.