What Is a Secondary Beneficiary?

By Grygor Scott

When setting up a will or trust, you designate a person, business or other legal entity to receive the proceeds from the estate or trust: The recipient is known as a beneficiary. A will or trust may also name secondary beneficiaries. These recipients receive proceeds from the estate or trust if a condition specified in the will or trust agreement occurs.

Primary Beneficiaries

Primary beneficiaries of a will receive the estate’s assets when the person who made the will dies. For example, it is common for married people to name their spouse as the primary beneficiary in their wills. Primary beneficiaries of a trust receive the funds from the trust in accordance with the terms of the trust agreement. In living trusts, the person who creates the trust is the primary beneficiary because he receives the funds from the trust.

Secondary Beneficiaries

A secondary beneficiary is a person who receives funds from an estate or trust only if a certain event specified in the will or trust agreement has occurred, for example, if the primary beneficiary has died. Because a secondary beneficiary’s legal rights are contingent upon the specified event, a secondary beneficiary is also known as a contingent beneficiary.

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Death as the Condition

In most cases, the death of a primary beneficiary is the condition that gives a secondary beneficiary a right to the proceeds from a will or trust. Because a primary beneficiary may die, it is common practice to add secondary beneficiaries when creating a will or trust. The will or trust agreement will instruct that the proceeds from the will or trust pass to the secondary beneficiary if the primary beneficiary dies. The wills of married couples often name their children as secondary beneficiaries in case both parents die.

Other Conditions

In some wills and trusts, the death of a primary beneficiary is not the specified condition that activates the right of a secondary beneficiary to claim proceeds from an estate or trust. Other common conditions include the secondary beneficiary reaching a certain age, graduating from college and marrying or having offspring. These types of conditions may be added to the condition of the death of the primary beneficiary. For example, a trust agreement may instruct that a secondary beneficiary receive proceeds from the trust only if the primary beneficiary has died and the secondary beneficiary has reached the age of 18.


Naming secondary beneficiaries in wills and trust agreements helps ensure that your assets are passed to beneficiaries of your choice. It also helps avoid legal controversies about your assets among your heirs after you die. In the case of trusts, if you do not name a secondary beneficiary and your primary beneficiary dies, the assets may become part of your estate when you die or your primary beneficiary’s estate when she dies. As a result, these assets may become subject to estate taxes and claims by creditors.

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Rights of Primary Beneficiary Vs. Contingent Beneficiary


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