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What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

Life Insurance
An Asian family making dinner together and discussing what a contingent beneficiary is

When you buy a life insurance policy, you typically name a life insurance beneficiary. If you have a 401(k) or other retirement account, you've likely named a beneficiary for that, too. You can name one or more primary beneficiaries, but did you know that you can also name a contingent beneficiary? Understanding how this policy feature works for life insurance can help you decide whether to choose one — and who you want it to be. Here's what to consider.

What Is a Contingent Beneficiary?

A contingent beneficiary is a person or entity that receives the death benefit of a life insurance policy if the primary beneficiary is unable to receive the proceeds. For example, if the life insurance policyholder dies and the primary beneficiary is deceased or declines the policy benefit, the contingents would receive the benefit.

Why Name a Contingent Beneficiary?

The benefit of naming one or more contingent beneficiaries is that someone or some entity of your choosing still receives your life insurance benefit even when things don't go quite as planned.

For example, if you and your primary beneficiary were to die in a car accident, your contingent beneficiary or beneficiaries would receive your life insurance proceeds. This is why married couples sometimes name their children as contingent beneficiaries.

Who or What Can Be a Life Insurance Beneficiary?

Life insurance policyholders typically have a good amount of flexibility when choosing beneficiaries. Here are some examples of who or what can be a contingent beneficiary — or a primary one, for that matter.


Spouses are often chosen as a primary beneficiary, but the policyholder may instead name the spouse as a contingent beneficiary if they choose. It's important to note that with certain qualified retirement plans, such as a 401(k), the spouse must be named the primary beneficiary, unless the spouse gives written consent otherwise.


Life insurance policyholders typically name a spouse as the primary beneficiary and their children as contingent beneficiaries. This way, if the spouse is deceased or unable to receive the benefit, the children will receive it at the time of the policyholder's death. For minor children, the policyholder can designate a trustee or set up a trust to receive the benefit on the minor's behalf.

Other Relatives

If the life insurance policyholder does not name their spouse or children as a beneficiary, or if they don't have these relatives, they may decide to choose other relatives. This could be someone with ambitious financial goals or other people they want to take care of financially.


A life insurance beneficiary does not need to be a spouse, a child or a relative. Individuals outside of the family may also be named as beneficiaries.


Individuals are commonly named as life insurance beneficiaries, but making a trust a beneficiary can make sense in some cases. For example, people whose ideal beneficiaries have creditor issues or have trouble managing money might consider naming a trust to help those funds get used as they intended.

Charitable Organization

If your individual beneficiaries are no longer in need of financial support, you may choose to name a charity as the beneficiary. You could also choose to name a charity as a partial beneficiary, or you might consider simply naming a charity as a contingent beneficiary.

Although a contingent beneficiary only receives the proceeds of a life insurance policy if the primary beneficiary is unable to receive the benefit, it's still important to consider all of the options available to you. There are a number of situations where setting up a contingent beneficiary may help you decide who will have access to your assets when you die. If you have more questions, consider talking to a financial representative.

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Information provided is general and educational in nature, and all products or services discussed may not be provided by Western & Southern Financial Group or its member companies (“the Company”). The information is not intended to be, and should not be construed as, legal or tax advice. The Company does not provide legal or tax advice. Laws of a specific state or laws relevant to a particular situation may affect the applicability, accuracy, or completeness of this information. Federal and state laws and regulations are complex and are subject to change. The Company makes no warranties with regard to the information or results obtained by its use. The Company disclaims any liability arising out of your use of, or reliance on, the information. Consult an attorney or tax advisor regarding your specific legal or tax situation.