When Andi Wrenn’s father died, she had to pay for his funeral with her credit card.
He had life insurance, but he hadn’t updated his beneficiaries in 20 years. His children were minors at that time, and he left the money to his brother and to his father, who died about five years before he did.
“I was young, and had to pay for my father’s funeral,” Wrenn said. “My uncle said, ‘No, this money was for me. Your dad wanted me to have it.’
“I told him, ‘If you could just give the money for the funeral, that’s all we’d care about.’ ”
Wrenn, a military widow, holds an Accredited Financial Counselor certification and has worked with military communities in a management capacity since 2008. She provides education to financial professionals in all areas of personal finance and counseling techniques.
“It’s part of finances, making sure that all your beneficiaries for every account you have are up to date — any account that could have a beneficiary,” said Wrenn, who said her own experience at age 31 helped shape how she and her husband approached wills and other aspects of finances.
She knows of a number of cases where service members left their life insurance to their parents. Whether they intended to do this, or whether they simply failed to update their beneficiaries after they married and had children, no one will ever know.
“If there’s a reason you left things the way you left them, let your spouse know. Let your family know,” Wrenn said. “Talk to people about what you decide.”
As you’re determining how much life insurance you’ll need and designating your beneficiaries, think of the consequences for your loved ones. Few people want to think about their own mortality, but think about those you will leave behind.
Whether you’re active duty or retired, consider how much income will be coming in for those who depend on you after your income stops.
“When the primary caregiver dies, there’s the house payment, and all the bills that are normally being paid,” Wrenn said.
“I’ve known people who were pregnant when the spouse died, and things may not have been updated. Then you’re talking about 18 years … and that life insurance might have been used to pay off the house, or maybe buy a house to live in for the rest of their lives.”
Some service members or retirees remarry after divorce and never update their beneficiaries. There have been cases when spouses called the American Armed Forces Mutual Aid Association to say their spouse has died and that they had an AAFMAA policy, and AAFMAA has had to tell them that the first wife (or husband) is still the main beneficiary on the life insurance policy.
“That’s a very awkward conversation, as you can imagine,” said Mike Meese, executive vice president of AAFMAA and a retired Army brigadier general.
The bottom line of the importance of updating beneficiaries is the same bottom line of why life insurance is important, said Meese and Stephen Pietropaoli, a retired Navy rear admiral who is chief operating officer of Navy Mutual.
“You need to think through your situation with a needs assessment,” Pietropaoli said. “Really trying to understand what you’re trying to do. What’s the purpose of life insurance? Income replacement, taking care of a mortgage? Then walking through ways to address that.
“The biggest challenge for the industry is the education, the information, to get people to understand why they should care that life insurance exists. … You can set your family up for horrible consequences if you don’t think about it.”
Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.