Contingent beneficiary in wills or trusts - Trust attorney near me

The Ultimate Guide for a Contingent Beneficiary

Contingent beneficiaries, remainder beneficiaries, remaindermen, and secondary beneficiaries have rights to estate or trust assets, but those rights are contingent upon the inability to distribute the assets to the primary beneficiary. Here’s a guide.

What is a contingent beneficiary?

A contingent beneficiary – sometimes called a remainder beneficiary, a remainderman, or a secondary beneficiary, is an individual or entity who is scheduled to receive an estate or trust distribution, after the death of the Trustor, but only if the primary beneficiary has passed away, or is unable or unwilling to accept the distribution.

For example, if a grandparent passes away and leaves their entire estate to their surviving child, but that child has also passed away, then that child’s child (the grandparent’s grandchild) would be the contingent beneficiary. This may be dictated by the will or trust, or simply by the state’s probate code and laws of intestate succession.

Is a secondary beneficiary the same as a contingent beneficiary?

Yes, for the most part. A secondary beneficiary is an individual named in a will or trust, who is earmarked to receive a distribution if the primary beneficiary is not able to accept the distribution. In some colloquial conversations, the “secondary” beneficiary may refer to a secondary beneficiary whose name is in the will or trust, while the “contingent” beneficiary is the individual next in line to receive the distribution due to intestate succession laws, even though they aren’t specifically named in the trust.

What is a primary beneficiary?

The primary beneficiary is the individual named in the last will and testament or trust and is first scheduled to receive a distribution. It can also be the first person to be entitled to receive an estate distribution under a state’s intestacy law. For example, when a spouse passes away, their surviving spouse is the primary beneficiary, as dictated per state probate code and intestacy law. Plus, they are frequently named in the will or trust to receive their rightful distribution.

What is an intended beneficiary?

An intended beneficiary is simply any of the persons named in a will or trust. For example, a family trust names the spouse and three children of the decedent the intended beneficiaries. The trust may also name secondary beneficiaries, if the spouse or any of the children also pass away.

Is a revocable beneficiary the same as contingent beneficiary?

No. A revocable beneficiary is an individual who is “not guaranteed” a trust distribution, meaning the Trustor can change their mind about giving them a distribution. Whereas, in an irrevocable trust, the individuals named in the trust are “guaranteed” their distributions pursuant to the trust. And the trust allocations and distributions cannot be changed. An exception to this general rule may exist where the trust has a power of appointment, allowing assets to be directed to someone other than the originally stated beneficiaries.

For example, a Trustor may name a caregiver as a revocable beneficiary. Why? Well, they may appreciate the caregiver’s time and efforts, but lack a solid relationship with the caregiver. As such, if the caregiver is discovered to be unreliable over time, then the Trustor may repeal the intended distribution to that caregiver.

What is a tertiary beneficiary?

Tertiary means “third”, so tertiary beneficiary refers to the beneficiary third in line to receive an inheritance or estate distribution, if the primary and secondary beneficiaries are unable to receive theirs.

Can a beneficiary contest a will or trust?

Yes. A beneficiary or heir has the right to contest a will or trust, if they feel they are not receiving their rightful inheritance distribution. Generally, a beneficiary seeking a larger distribution will retain a probate litigation lawyer or trust litigation attorney to represent them in the matter.

Why would a beneficiary contest a will or trust?

Generally, a beneficiary will contest a will or trust in order to get a larger inheritance. Common reasons for beneficiaries to contest a will or trust include:

Medical Bills

At RMO, we frequently work with clients who paid the bulk of their deceased parent’s medical bills, sometimes totalling $100,000 or more. We work with these clients to get the medical bills paid by the estate BEFORE the estate or trust assets are distributed. This ensures that the bills are paid fairly, and all beneficiaries accept equal burden to pay the medical bills, before receiving their inheritance.

Undue Influence

It’s quite common to discover that the decedent changed their will or trust only a few weeks or months before passing away. Sometimes they made these changes because of undue influence applied by an abusive spouse, caregiver, or trusted family member. If so, then the beneficiaries impacted by the changes can contest the will or trust to regain their rightful inheritance.


It’s similarly common that when a decedent suddenly changes their will or trust shortly before death that they were suffering from some ailment or condition that left them without sufficient legal capacity to make those changes. If this is the case, then the affected beneficiary or heir will be able to contest the will or trust to overturn the illegitimate document.

When should I contact a probate litigation lawyer?

Contact a probate litigation lawyer the moment you suspect an unfair estate distribution, undue influence, incapacity, or financial elder abuse. The single biggest regret we have seen is family members who have waited, not wanting to cause family disharmony, only to be left in a worse position because of the delay. What’s more, the longer you wait to pursue claims, the harder it is to recover lost assets and distributions.

Do I need a probate lawyer near me?

We recommend finding an experienced probate lawyer familiar with the county probate court in the county where the estate is located. For example, if the beneficiary lives in San Diego, yet the decedent lived in Los Angeles, we recommend working with a probate lawyer in Los Angeles. A Los Angeles trust lawyer will generally be more familiar with the Los Angeles Superior Court Probate Division, versus an out of state attorney.

Have questions? Contact us right now. It’s totally free.
[email protected] or call (424) 320-9444

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About RMO Lawyers, LLP

RMO LLP provides personal and efficient inheritance dispute services to individual and institutional clients. The firm’s attorneys focus on probate litigation involving contested trust, estate, probate, and conservatorship matters. Serving California and Texas, with offices in Los Angeles, Pasadena, Orange County, San Diego, Fresno, the Bay Area, Dallas, and Houston. For more information, please visit

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About the Author

Scott Rahn, Founding Partner

Scott Rahn resolves contests, disputes and litigation related to trusts, estates and conservatorships, creating a welcome peace of mind for clients. He represents heirs, beneficiaries, trustees and executors. He utilizes his experience to develop and implement strategies that swiftly and efficiently address the financial issues, fiduciary duties and emotional complexities underlying trust contests, estates conflicts and probate litigation.

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