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With 401(k), a beneficiary is an individual designated by the plan participant, or account holder, to receive the assets of the 401(k) account in the event of the participant’s death. Here are some key points about beneficiaries in the 401(k) context:

  1. Primary and Contingent Beneficiaries: The primary beneficiary is the first in line to receive the assets. There can also be contingent beneficiaries, who are in line to receive the assets if no primary beneficiary is available at the time of the participant’s death.
  2. Spousal Rights: In many cases, the spouse of the plan participant is the presumed beneficiary, unless the spouse has given written consent for another beneficiary to be designated.
  3. Designation: Participants can typically name any person, trust, charity, or organization as a beneficiary, and they can divide the benefits among them in any proportion they choose.
  4. Legal Considerations: Beneficiary designations are governed by plan documents and federal law, which can preempt state law. It’s important for participants to ensure their beneficiary designations are up-to-date and reflect their current intentions, especially after major life events like marriage, divorce, or the birth of a child.
  5. Claiming the Assets: Upon the death of the account holder, beneficiaries must claim the assets. The process for doing so varies depending on the plan’s rules and the type of beneficiary.
  6. Distribution Options: Depending on the plan and the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased, there may be different distribution options available, such as lump-sum payments or rollovers into an inherited IRA.
  7. Tax Implications: Beneficiaries should be aware of the potential tax implications of inheriting a 401(k) and plan accordingly. They may be subject to required minimum distributions (RMDs) and should consult with a tax professional.

It is always recommended that participants review their beneficiary designations periodically and after life-changing events to ensure that their 401(k) benefits will be distributed according to their wishes.