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Should you add beneficiaries to your accounts?

Designating your beneficiaries is an important financial matter, so be sure to make your decisions carefully.

What types of accounts do you have?

Your options for whether and by what method to add beneficiaries to your accounts depend on the accounts that you hold.


The beneficiary designations that you make on a retirement account like an IRA generally supersede any other instructions you leave, including your will. So if your will states that your spouse is your IRA beneficiary, but the IRA itself designates your children as your beneficiaries, your children will inherit your IRA.

If you don't designate beneficiaries for your IRA, your assets will pass to your spouse (if you're married at the time of your death) or your estate (if you're not married at the time of your death).

Primary & secondary beneficiaries

A primary beneficiary receives your assets after your death. Your primary beneficiary must survive you (or be a charity or an existing trust). A secondary or contingent beneficiary will inherit your assets only if you have no surviving primary beneficiaries.

Nonretirement accounts

The decision whether to name beneficiaries on your nonretirement accounts should be made in the context of your estate plan. Depending on the choices you've already made, your nonretirement accounts may not need beneficiaries. Consult an estate-planning attorney to determine what's best for you.

Joint accounts

Your Vanguard joint accounts don't need beneficiaries. Joint accounts simply pass to the surviving owner.

Designate beneficiaries

Are you inheriting a Vanguard account?

Get complete portfolio management

We can custom-develop and implement your financial plan, giving you greater confidence that you're doing all you can to reach your goals.

Consolidate your accounts

Consider moving accounts you hold elsewhere to Vanguard. You'll enjoy more control of your portfolio now and save legwork for your heirs later.

Make a lasting difference

Vanguard Charitable offers a flexible and convenient way to make the most of your philanthropy.


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A person or organization designated to receive the proceeds of an investment account (or an insurance policy, a pension, or an annuity contract) after the owner's death.

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A type of account created by the IRS that offers tax benefits when used to save for retirement.

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A legal document in which a person leaves instructions for how to distribute his or her property after death.

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All of a decedent's liabilities and assets, including property (real and personal).

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A legal arrangement through which a third party holds property, such as investments or real estate, on behalf of a beneficiary. Trusts are often used to reduce or eliminate estate taxes.

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Estate plan

A plan to carry out an individual's wishes as to the administration and disposition of his or her property before or after his or her death.

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Joint account

An account with two or more owners.