Life Insurance

What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

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Contingent beneficiaries are the people who receive your death benefit if your primary beneficiaries die or become impaired and are unable to claim their benefits. It's important to name them because if your primary beneficiaries don't take your death benefit, the money will end up as part of your estate and go into probate upon your death.

Who can I name as a beneficiary?

When you purchase a life insurance policy, you'll be asked to assign beneficiaries. Your beneficiaries are the people or entities who receive the payout or death benefit if you pass away during the period of coverage. Some common choices for beneficiaries include:

  • Your spouse
  • Family members
  • Adult children
  • A trust
  • Your company
  • A charity
  • An estate

Beneficiaries must have the legal power to claim an asset. For example, pets can't be beneficiaries and neither can minor children. If you want to leave money to young children, you will need to assign a guardian or set-up a trust to oversee the funds until the child comes of age.

Most of the time, unless the beneficiary assignment is considered irrevocable under your policy, you can change your beneficiaries. Experts recommend reviewing your selections every three to five years, and after any significant life event, like a divorce, death or birth in your immediate family.

Primary and contingent beneficiaries

Primary beneficiaries are the people or entities you intend to receive your life insurance death benefit if everything goes according to plan. Contingent beneficiaries are the backup. For example, if your spouse was your sole primary beneficiary and you both died in a car crash, your contingent beneficiaries would be able to claim the death benefit. Similarly, you can also assign tertiary beneficiaries that would be able to claim your death benefit if all your primary and contingent beneficiaries passed away.

For both primary and contingent beneficiaries, you can assign as many beneficiaries as you want. The total percentage of life insurance proceeds assigned to each of the primary beneficiaries just needs to total 100%, as is the case with contingent beneficiaries as well.

To illustrate, say you are married, have three children, and have a financially dependent brother. You could assign the following beneficiary structure for your $600,000 death benefit:

Person
Relationship
Beneficiary Level
% of Death Benefit
LauraSpousePrimary50%
JamesBrotherPrimary50%
AnnChildContingent50%
LeeChildContingent25%
RobChildContingent25%
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When you break up and share a death benefit, some variables can impact the disbursement of the funds. For example:

  • Only you pass away - Laura and James would each receive $300,000.
  • You and Laura pass away - James would receive the full $600,000 death benefit.
  • You, Laura and James pass away - Ann could claim $300,000 of the death benefit. Lee and Rob would each receive $150,000.
  • You, Laura, James and Rob pass away - Ann would get $400,000 of the death benefit while Lee would get $200,000.

As you can see, the only real difference between primary and contingent beneficiaries is that primary beneficiaries have the first claim to your life insurance proceeds.

Contingent beneficiaries can also assist primary beneficiaries if your primary beneficiary isn't legally able to claim or manage the money. For example, if your spouse was your primary beneficiary but was somehow incapacitated, and your adult child was a secondary beneficiary, they could claim the proceeds on the condition that they assist in the care of your spouse.

How to assign and assist your contingent beneficiaries

When you assign contingent beneficiaries for your life insurance policy, make sure they are specified clearly in all paperwork. Typically, this will involve providing each beneficiary's full name and social security number (or tax ID number in the case of an organization). Adding all pertinent information is essential to avoid having your family facing hurdles when trying to claim your life insurance benefits. Do not merely write "child" or "spouse" when filling out your forms, as this could lead to confusion if your life circumstances change down the line.

Give all beneficiaries a copy of your life insurance and make sure they know how to contact each other and your life insurance company in the event of your death. To collect death benefits, all beneficiaries are required to submit death certificates to the life insurance company.

Why have a contingent beneficiary?

While your will determines the distribution of assets within your estate, life insurance proceeds bypass this procedure, and the funds are given directly to your beneficiaries. However, if you don't list a life insurance beneficiary, or they all are unable to claim the death benefit, the money will become part of your estate and have to go through probate as part of your estate.

This process, depending on your estate size and complexity, can take several months. The probate process is extensive as it involves using your estate to pay off creditors. If you have no debts, then the probate court will determine who should receive the remaining assets. Any remaining money could be fought over or used in a way you didn't intend if you didn't name beneficiaries.

Suppose you don't have any specific person in mind, or your spouse is your primary beneficiary, but you don't have children. In that case, you could simply assign a favorite charity as your contingent or tertiary beneficiary, to keep the funds out of probate court.

Maxime Croll

Maxime is a Sr. Director at ValuePenguin focusing on the insurance industry. Previously she was the Director of Product Marketing at CoverWallet, a commercial insurance startup, and helped launch NerdWallet's personal insurance business. Maxime has contributed insurance insights and analysis to Forbes, USA Today, The Hill, and many other publications.

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