What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

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A contingent beneficiary receives a beneficiary-named account if the primary beneficiary can't or won't do so. They're a "second" beneficiary who more or less waits in the wings, just in case.

Key Takeaways

  • A contingent beneficiary is second in line to inherit from you if your primary or first beneficiary can't or won't do so.
  • Retirement accounts will often revert to your probate estate if you fail to name a contingent beneficiary, and your primary beneficiary dies before you do.
  • You can name one or more beneficiaries in both roles.
  • Updating your designations on retirement accounts or insurance policies can be as easy as filling out a form.

Definition and Example of a Contingent Beneficiary

A contingent beneficiary is second in line behind the primary beneficiary of an inheritance. This person will only inherit the named assets if the primary beneficiary does not. The account you designate to be given to a primary beneficiary will be released to your second beneficiary if your first beneficiary can't be found, declines the gift, isn't legally able to accept it, or dies before you do.

  • Alternate name: Secondary beneficiary

When you name a beneficiary, you're legally proclaiming whom you want to receive your assets upon your death, which could include an IRA, a 401(k), or an insurance policy. When planning your estate, you should consider naming a secondary beneficiary so that your assets will go where you want them to go and not end up in probate.

How Contingent Beneficiaries Work

When considering who will inherit your assets, you might name your spouse as the primary beneficiary of 100% of an account. Your two adult children might receive 50% each as contingent beneficiaries if your spouse dies before you do. You might also name your spouse as the primary beneficiary of 50% of the account, with your children each named as 25% primary beneficiaries.

You can even name a nonprofit charitable organization as a beneficiary, although you'll want to talk to a tax professional about the best way to do that. The point is that you can divide your assets up any way you choose.


You can name more than one primary beneficiary and more than one contingent beneficiary—you're not limited to one of each. You can set percentages for each, citing what portion of the account they should receive.

The persons you name must be legally able to accept the asset in the event of your death. Your retirement accounts will revert to your probate estate if you fail to name a contingent beneficiary and your primary beneficiary can't or won't accept the account.

A legal guardian must be named to accept the money on a minor's behalf and manage it until they reach the age of majority. The same would apply if your beneficiary were mentally incapacitated and unable to manage their own affairs.

You can appoint a legal guardian in advance in either case, but a court must legally appoint someone if you don't. That can be an expensive process. The person named by the court might not be someone you want to have control of your asset.

You're not locked into your beneficiary choices for life. Contingents and primaries can be added or replaced with little to no fuss, unless the account is irrevocable, as might be the case with some insurance policies. Making a change is often just a matter of filling out a form.


Contact your plan custodian to make changes to your IRA. Contact your plan administrator if you want to make changes to a 401(k) or another employer-sponsored retirement plan.

Contingent vs. Primary Beneficiaries

Think of these beneficiaries as people standing in line. The primary person is at the head of the line. The contingent person is behind them and can only move forward if the primary beneficiary moves aside for some reason. A contingent beneficiary is thus "plan B."

Contingent Beneficiary Primary Beneficiary
Can only accept the asset if the primary beneficiary does not Their inheritance isn't affected or decreased by naming a contingent beneficiary
Ensures that your asset will go to someone of your own choosing if your first beneficiary doesn't or can't take it The individual or entity you would most like to receive the asset

Pros and Cons of Contingent Beneficiaries

  • Useful if you want to avoid probate

  • You can change beneficiaries as major life changes occur

  • Can be costly to settle

  • Can be problematic if you don't update beneficiaries

Pros Explained

Useful if you want to avoid probate: Accounts with these types of designations are often referred to as "will substitutes." They can be very useful if you want to avoid probate of at least some of your assets.

You can change beneficiaries as major life changes occur: Your choice of beneficiaries and any changes you make to them will override any and all terms you might leave in your will for the same assets. You might want to revisit your designations now and then to make sure they still fit your current stage of life. The need to update your estate plan often occurs after major life changes, such as a marriage, birth, divorce, or death in the family.

Cons Explained

Can be costly to settle: The larger your probate estate, the more costly it becomes to settle, which reduces the value of what you can leave to your probate heirs. It can be helpful to take beneficiary accounts out of your estate.

Can become problematic if you don't update beneficiaries: Your plan could fall apart if you fail to keep your beneficiaries up to date. They should know that they're named as being either first or second in line. They should know the identifying details of what they're named to receive. It's often up to them to make claims for the assets in question when the time comes.

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  1. Insurance Information Institute. "What Is a Beneficiary?" Accessed Dec. 22, 2021.

  2. HG.org Legal Resources. "Importance of Naming Contingent Beneficiaries in Estate Planning Documents." Accessed Dec. 22, 2021.

  3. State Farm. "What to Consider When Choosing a Beneficiary." Accessed Dec. 22, 2021.

  4. American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys. "Modifying an Irrevocable Trust." Accessed Dec. 22, 2021.

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