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.

Ready to start your LLC? Start an LLC Online Now

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.

Ready to start your LLC? Start an LLC Online Now
Can a Revocable Trust Be Changed With a Will?


Related articles

Beneficiary Dying During the Probate of the Will in Pennsylvania

The death of a beneficiary during the probate process can alter the distribution of the estate. Some wills include a provision stating that a beneficiary must survive the testator by a certain amount of time -- 30 days, for example -- but this type of contingency is not usually planned for. Whether such a provision is included in a will can make all the difference in how the assets of the estate are distributed.

What If a Will Is Written Before a Grandchild Is Born?

A well-written will may cover most scenarios involving inheritance by including language or definitions to that effect. The terms “issue” or “lineal descendants” are often used to make it possible for children of subsequent generations to inherit from the grandparent. A grandparent whose will names grandchildren as beneficiaries should consider adding a similar provision referring to future grandchildren. Sometimes, however, a will does not specifically reference unknown or future generations. In such cases, state law or other will provisions determine the disposition of property.

What Is a Surviving Primary Beneficiary?

Your estate plan leaves directions for your loved ones regarding how you want to pass your assets to those you leave behind. Some of your assets, such as personal property, may pass under the terms of your will to beneficiaries you name in that document. Other assets, like life insurance and retirement plans, may pass outside your will, but all must go to beneficiaries who are alive at the time of your death – individuals or entities who survive you.

LLCs, Corporations, Patents, Attorney Help LLCs

Related articles

Common Disaster Provisions in Wills

In the parlance of wills and insurance policies, a common disaster provision is language which directs how assets or ...

Does a Beneficiary of a Living Trust Have the Right to See the Trust?

All trusts, including living trusts, are established to benefit certain individuals or organizations identified in the ...

How Long Does a Prenuptial Agreement Last?

A prenuptial agreement is a contract and like many contracts, its lifespan depends on the terms included in it. Before ...

Do IRAs Override a Last Will & Testament?

The beneficiary form you complete when you open an IRA is like a “mini-will” for your retirement account. Because your ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED