Many people in the United States, even if they do not have a will, trusts or other estate planning documents, have filled out beneficiary designations. These are used to identify the beneficiaries for 401(k)s and retirement accounts. People who purchase a life insurance policy will also complete a beneficiary designation. Although these are fairly simple documents, people frequently make mistakes with them.

Most of those mistakes are related to a lack of understanding about how beneficiary designations work and failure to update them. They may mistakenly think that they can resolve any issues using their will or a trust, but whatever is on the form takes precedence over those documents.

Some people might have one or more 401(k) accounts that are “orphaned,” meaning they have been forgotten with previous employers. One man discovered that 15 years after his divorce, he still had his ex-wife listed as his primary beneficiary on one. A woman who died with more than $1 million in her IRA had listed her three adult children as her beneficiaries. However, one of them had died, and she had not made a contingency plan or updated the document. The other two split the IRA, and the family ended up in a costly, bitter legal battle over whether the children of the person who died should have inherited that parent’s share.

People who need to review or update an estate plan may want to work with an attorney. An attorney might be able to help the person determine whether they want to use a will or a trust as their primary estate planning vehicle and may help prepare documents correctly. One potential advantage of a trust is that the assets in it do not have to pass through probate. It is a private document that can pass assets directly to beneficiaries.