When a participant in a retirement plan dies, benefits the participant would have been entitled to are usually paid to the participant’s designated beneficiary in a form provided by the terms of the plan (lump-sum distribution or an annuity). Many retirement plans require the account owner to name a spouse as the beneficiary unless he/she signs a form allowing the owner to name someone else as the beneficiary. The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) protects surviving spouses of deceased participants who had earned a vested pension benefit before their death. The nature of the protection depends on the type of plan and whether the participant dies before or after payment of the pension benefit is scheduled to begin, otherwise known as the annuity starting date. It is also important to remember that because they are non-probate assets, the assets held in a retirement account can be paid out to the beneficiary shortly after the owner’s death.