What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

A contingent beneficiary – also known as a secondary beneficiary – is a person, entity, or trust which is legally entitled to receive the proceeds from your life insurance policy, if something were to happen to your primary beneficiary.

Why exactly do you need a contingent beneficiary when you have already named someone as your primary beneficiary? Let us find out!

Top Reasons to Name a Contingent Beneficiary

To understand the necessity of a contingent beneficiary, you need to know what happens if your primary beneficiary passes away before you do.

If you name your spouse or partner as your only beneficiary, and if he or she passes away before you do, the proceeds from your life insurance policy usually go to your estate in the event of your death. This can be problematic in estate planning for several reasons.


First, your estate goes through the probate process, wherein a court-appointed executor settles outstanding bills and debts (if any) and distributes the rest of your assets to your beneficiaries, as deemed by the probate court.

It is a complicated process which can take months, especially if you have left behind a large estate, which brings us to our second point.

Estate Taxes

People with large estates buy life insurance policies – whole life policies in particular – to pass on a large sum of tax-free money to their heirs.

The money can be used to pay estate taxes – both at the federal and state level. In the absence of such a payout, the family of the deceased might have to liquidate some of their assets in order to pay the tax.

As we mentioned above, in the absence of a contingent beneficiary, the death benefit paid out by the life insurance company is added to your estate and is taxable.

If you have a significant amount of debt, most of what you leave behind (your estate as well as the payout from the insurance policy) might be used to pay off your creditors, leaving next to nothing for your beneficiaries.

Potential for Infighting

If you fail to designate a contingent beneficiary, many of your family members and relatives might try to claim the estate for themselves, leading to ugly and unnecessary infighting in your family.

No Control over Your Own Money

The whole point of buying a life insurance policy is to make sure that the people who matter to you are taken care of in your absence. If you pass away without naming a contingent beneficiary, the payout from your insurance policy might not reach the person whom you intended to leave the money for.

An executor appointed by the probate court will allocate your assets to your beneficiaries. As a result, the person whom you intended to leave the money for might only get a fraction of it.

When Does a Contingent Beneficiary Become Eligible to Receive Your Life Insurance Payout?

Contrary to what many people think, a contingent beneficiary does not automatically become eligible to receive the payout in the event of the primary beneficiary’s death.

There are several possibilities, wherein the death benefit could be paid out to your estate, your primary beneficiary’s estate, or your contingent beneficiary.

Scenario One

Your primary beneficiary passes away and you pass away shortly after without naming another beneficiary. In this scenario, the proceeds from your policy go to your estate.

Scenario Two

You pass away and your primary beneficiary files a claim with the insurer. The insurer processes and approves the claim.

However, before the death benefit is paid out, your primary beneficiary passes away. In this scenario, the proceeds from your policy go to the primary beneficiary’s estate, even if you named a contingent beneficiary.

Scenario Three

You and your primary beneficiary pass away in an accident at the same time. This is a tricky scenario, as the decision as to who receives the death benefit can only be made based on who died first.

If your primary beneficiary passed away a few minutes after you did, the proceeds from the policy will go to his or her estate, even if you had named a contingent beneficiary.

If your primary beneficiary passed away a few minutes before you did, the proceeds from the policy will go to your contingent beneficiary, if you had named one. In the absence of a contingent beneficiary, the proceeds will go to your estate.

If it is impossible to decide who died first, the insurance company will simply assume that you outlived your primary beneficiary, in which case the proceeds will go to your contingent beneficiary (if you had named one) or to your estate.

Scenario Four

If you designate multiple people as your primary beneficiaries and one of them passes away shortly after you do, the death benefit payout will be evenly divided among the rest of them.

For instance, let us say you buy a $300,000 policy and name your wife and three children as your beneficiaries. In the event of your death, all four of your beneficiaries will receive $75,000 each. If your wife passes away shortly after you do, your children will receive $100,000 each.

If your children are minors at the time of your death, their share of the death benefit will be managed by a legal guardian until they reach the adult age of 18 or 21, depending on the state you live in.

Three Things to Know about Designating Contingent Beneficiaries

Review the List of Beneficiaries

It is advisable to review your list of beneficiaries as and when needed – when you get married, when you have children, when you get divorced, and so on.

Percentage, Not Dollar Amount

If you have a permanent life policy, it is a good idea to specify a percentage in terms of how much each of your beneficiaries should receive, rather than a dollar amount.

This is because the cash value component can grow at a faster rate than expected, in which case the death benefit payout might also be higher than expected.

Let us say you buy a $300,000 universal life policy and name your wife and two children as the beneficiaries, with each set to receive $100,000 in the event of your death. If the policy is worth $350,000 at the time of your death, your beneficiaries might not be sure as to how the extra $50,000 should be divided.

To avoid such a scenario, you can specify that you want each of your beneficiaries to get 33% of the death benefit and the remaining 1% should be divided evenly among them.

Keep Everyone in the Loop

Above all, keep all your beneficiaries – primary as well as contingent – in the loop. Let them know that you have named them as your beneficiary and how much they stand to receive in the event of your death.

Also, explain to them the process of filing a claim with the insurance company so that they know what to do when the time comes.

Contact NoExam.com for Your Life Insurance Needs

The life insurance specialists at NoExam.com can also help you find the right life insurance product and company based on your unique needs. Get in touch today for the right advice and highly competitive quotes.

Related Articles

Jonathan Holloway
September 9, 2019
Jonathan is a licensed life insurance agent at NoExam.com that writes about insurance, personal finance, lifestyle, and sports. See our pages on term life insurance, life insurance rates and life insurance companies for more.
Disclaimer: We make every attempt to make sure our information is up to date, but since things change often it is best to double check the data. This review is an opinion. Clicking on links may result in NoExam.com being compensated.