APRIL 3, 2006 VOLUME 13, NUMBER 40
Five years ago the Arizona Legislature adopted an interesting new law. Modeled on a similar law in Missouri, the “beneficiary deed” statute permitted property owners to designate who would receive their property on death—much like a “payable on death” bank account. Now the state legislature has revisited beneficiary deeds, and made them even more flexible and useful.
One unanswered problem arose a handful of times under the previous law. What would happen if a person named to receive property by a beneficiary deed died before the original property owner? If, for example, a parent signed a beneficiary deed to “my two children, John and Mary,” and Mary died before the parent leaving children of her own, did that mean that her children would receive her share, or that son John would own the entire property on the parent’s death?
Effective this fall (the date is not yet set and won’t be known until the legislature adjourns) beneficiary deeds can solve that problem. Under a law signed by Governor Napolitano on March 24, 2006, all new beneficiary deeds must include a paragraph indicating which of two choices the owner prefers. The language required by the new law:
If a grantee beneficiary predeceases the owner, the conveyance to that grantee beneficiary shall either (choose one):
 Become null and void.
 Become part of the estate of the grantee beneficiary.
There are still a number of important issues to remember in the use of beneficiary deeds, and it will not be appropriate in every case to use this approach to transfer property. With some of the following limitations in mind, however, it may be that the beneficiary deed is a simple, inexpensive and useful method to avoid probate, especially in small estates. Among the remaining limitations for beneficiary deeds:
- They are not available in every state. As of this writing, only Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and Ohio permit the use of beneficiary deeds.
- An individual using a beneficiary deed will need to coordinate his or her estate plan as to multiple assets—it may, for instance, be necessary to keep track of beneficiary designations on multiple properties, several bank accounts, and a number of insurance policies and brokerage accounts. Anyone with more than a handful of assets should probably consider a living trust instead.
- A beneficiary deed can be changed by a surviving owner, so in the case of a husband and wife (for example), the final distribution is not set until the second death.
- The beneficiary deed provides no estate tax planning benefits for larger estates.
And what about individuals who signed an Arizona beneficiary deed before the new law was passed? Nothing in the law requires them to change their deeds, but they would be well-advised to consider updating the language to clarify what would happen if a beneficiary died before them. For those who might sign a beneficiary deed between now and the effective date, the best approach is less clear. Both the existing law and the new version require that beneficiary deeds be “substantially in the following form”—and then the form changes. Our advice: if you plan on signing an Arizona beneficiary deed in the next few months, expect to sign an updated version this fall.