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Why the terms beneficiary and heir are not interchangeable

It is possible to be a beneficiary of a will, but not an heir. Yet heirs are not always beneficiaries. You do not have to leave your assets to your spouse, child or sibling (your technical ‘heirs’). You may want to set aside funds in a pet trust for your dog or make a large gift to a charitable organization.

If you never create a will, however, your heirs (determined according to Colorado intestacy laws) become the beneficiaries of your estate. In Colorado probate, heirs must also be notified of the court proceedings even if they are not beneficiaries.

Beneficiary designation

Many accounts – life insurance, retirement accounts and bank deposits – require you to list a beneficiary. These assets pass outside the probate process even if contrary to provisions in your will.

In our December blog, we discussed how important it is to keep beneficiary designations up to date and accurate. It is crucial to review these designations after marriage, divorce or the death of your sole listed beneficiary. Listing a beneficiary when completing benefits enrollment documents with the start of new employment and never reviewing it can lead to unintended consequences.

Beneficiaries are not limited to the above accounts, but are also those who you name in your will or trust. A charity may thus be a beneficiary, but not an heir.

Heirs-at-law

These people (generally family members) will inherit your assets, if you do not leave a will or fail to complete a beneficiary designation on an account. In blended families or if an adult child passed away before you, this can lead to potentially inequitable results you probably would not have envisioned.

With intestacy laws, the state provides a default for who will inherit your estate taking the decision out of your hands. If no family members can be located, your estate could even "escheat" or go to the State.

Do not let estate planning remain on the list of things to do later. Take the first step. Speak to an estate planning attorney about what is required to protect and provide for loved ones if anything were to happen to you unexpectedly.

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