How do I choose an IRA beneficiary?

While setting up your Guideline IRA you will be able to designate your beneficiary(ies). A beneficiary is someone who will inherit your IRA balance if you pass away.

Although a beneficiary designation isn’t required, it is strongly recommended. Keep on reading to learn more about different types of beneficiaries, including primary and secondary beneficiaries and minor, trust, or non-individual beneficiary designations.

Primary Beneficiary

If you’re married

If you are married or become married, state law may require that your spouse be your primary beneficiary. If you want someone else to be named in addition to or as your primary beneficiary, your spouse must provide written consent for the designation to be effective if you reside in a community or marital property state.

Due to the importance of the tax, financial, and legal consequences of your spouse’s consent to your designation for another beneficiary, they should consult with an attorney regarding giving up their interest in your IRA.

If you’re single

You may select anyone as your beneficiary (i.e your parents, siblings, or that favorite niece of yours). However, if you get married later on, and you would like your spouse to be designated as your primary beneficiary, you will need to update your beneficiaries in your Guideline account dashboard. 

Secondary Beneficiary

In addition to your primary beneficiary, you can also list a “back-up” beneficiary – a secondary beneficiary who will be next in line to inherit your IRA balance if your primary beneficiary does not survive you. Designating a secondary beneficiary helps you ensure there’s always someone in line to inherit your IRA, even if you forget to update your designated beneficiaries over the years.

Multiple Beneficiaries

Guideline enables you to allocate among multiple primary or secondary beneficiaries. For example, if you list your two favorite nieces as your primary beneficiaries, you have the option of allocating 60% to your most favorite niece, and 40% to the other.

No Beneficiary

If you don’t name a beneficiary, or if none of your beneficiaries survive you, your account will be distributed in the following order:

  • Surviving spouse
  • Children, including adopted children (split equally by right of representation)
  • Surviving parents (split equally)
  • Your estate


You can also name a minor as a beneficiary – but it’s not recommended. If the minor beneficiary has not turned 18 by the time they inherit your IRA, a court of law will have to appoint a guardian to receive the money on their behalf.

A better alternative is to name a spouse or other trusted guardian as the beneficiary, with the understanding that they’ll use the funds for the minor’s benefit. If the minor turns 18 in your lifetime, you can update your beneficiary designation accordingly.

Living Trust Beneficiary

You might also want to create a living trust and name the trust as your beneficiary.

A common practice is to set up a trust for the benefit of a minor child directly without the need for lengthy and costly court proceedings.

You should consult an attorney to ensure the trust meets legal requirements. Otherwise, your beneficiaries may face significant tax disadvantages or be disqualified altogether.

Non-individual Beneficiary

You can also designate a non-individual in the form of a charity or a “for-profit” entity as a beneficiary. 

Contact your tax advisor for more information on adding a non-individual as a beneficiary of your IRA account. If you would like to designate a charity or a “for-profit” entity, contact participant support.

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