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Ask the Life Insurance Expert

My son is separated from his wife. Does he have to name her as beneficiary on his life insurance policy because they are not legally divorced? He lives in Texas.

No, as long as your son owns the policy, he can name anyone he pleases as beneficiary, and he can make changes at any time.

Life insurance policies have three main parties:

1.      The owner

2.      The insured

3.      The beneficiary

The owner pays the premiums and calls all the shots on the policy, including naming beneficiaries. If it's a permanent life insurance policy, the owner also makes decisions regarding the cash account. No one but the owner, for instance, has the right to take out a loan against the policy. (Unlike permanent life insurance, such as whole life or universal life, term life insurance does not feature a cash account, and it provides coverage only for a certain period of time, such as 10, 15 or 20 years.)

The insured is the person whose life is insured, and the beneficiary collects the death benefit when the insured dies. Oftentimes the owner and the insured are the same person, as is the case with your son, assuming he purchased the policy to insure his own life. The beneficiary on the policy collects the death benefit, but otherwise has no power.

Life insurance experts advise people to review their policies periodically and update them after major life changes, such as separation or divorce. If, for instance, your son never removed his current wife as beneficiary on a policy, she would collect the death benefit no matter what -- even if they never spoke to one another again and he happily remarried.

For more, see common questions about life insurance.

Last updated: Feb. 9, 2011