Can A Spouse Override A Beneficiary?

Estate planning can be complex, partly because of misunderstandings and assumptions. Such notions can range from what, exactly, is tax exempt to who, exactly, receives disbursements. 

Under the category of “who receives” is the assumption that the spouse is always the inheritor of assets at the time of death. In truth, even if your spouse is your presumed heir, he/she might not inherit unless your assets are jointly titled or carry a “rights-of-survivorship” designation. 

On the other hand, even if you name a beneficiary other than your spouse to a retirement account or other asset, there are some instances in which the rights of your husband or wife might override those of the appointed legatee. But not always. 

Defining the Beneficiary: A Review

In simple terms, a beneficiary is defined as an individual or entity who is eligible to receive distributions from a trust, will, or life insurance policy. Going one step further,  the beneficiary is a specifically identified entity that receives the benefits of something left to them by someone else. The operative words here are “specially identified.” In other words, you need to determine who—or what—receives distributions upon your death or incapacitation.

In many cases, spouses and children might be named as beneficiaries, but not always. Charities, nonprofits, or trusts can also be beneficiaries. Non-family members can also be identified as beneficiaries. There is absolutely no requirement that a spouse be named as a beneficiary of your life insurance, retirement fund, or other assets. 

But the question as to spouse’s rights to inherit versus the rights of a beneficiary isn’t all that cut and dried.

Spousal Rights – or Not

The general rule of thumb is that a beneficiary could override a spouse when it comes to asset receipt, except in the following situations. 

Community property states. If you and your spouse live in a community property state, then your individual retirement account, life insurance policy, or real estate trust might be considered community property. In other words, jointly owned by you and your spouse.

As such, when you die, half of the proceeds could end up with your spouse, even if you have a designated beneficiary.

Community property states are:

  • Arizona
  • California
  • Idaho
  • Louisiana
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • Texas
  • Washington
  • Wisconsin

Other states. Even if you don’t reside in a community property state, other states might allow that your spouse is entitled to receive something from your pension or life insurance policy when you die, even in the face of an assigned beneficiary. 

Qualified plans. Funds invested in qualified plans governed by federal law—such as a 401(k)—automatically go to your spouse, even if you name another beneficiary on a form provided to you by your employer. The only way to circumvent this is if your spouse signs a written waiver agreeing to your choice of another beneficiary.

Review your Wishes

Many facets of asset inheritance and targeted recipients are complex. It all depends on the specific assets, state of residence, and other factors.

As such, the question of whether a spouse can override a beneficiary doesn’t have a yes or no answer. To avoid any confusion as to who gets what when you die or become incapacitated, it’s important to talk to a professional who is well-versed in estate planning, especially in your state of residence.


This material is for general information and educational purposes only. Information is based on data gathered from what we believe are reliable sources. It is not guaranteed as to accuracy, does not purport to be complete and is not intended to be used as a primary basis for investment decisions. It should also not be construed as advice, meeting the particular investment needs of any investor. Realized does not provide tax or legal advice. This material is not a substitute for seeking the advice of a qualified professional for your individual situation.

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