What Is a Primary and Contingent Beneficiary?

A primary beneficiary is the first in line to receive a particular asset or amount of money. They will typically receive this asset as long as they are still alive when the deceased passes away. If they predecease the will’s maker, the contingent beneficiary will step into their place and receive the asset or funds instead.

What is a primary beneficiary?

A primary beneficiary is a person or entity that is first in line to receive a distribution from a will or trust. When someone passes away without a will, the term “primary beneficiary” can also refer to the first person who is entitled to receive money or other assets from the estate under the state’s intestacy laws.

A will or trust may include more than one primary beneficiary and leave specific percentages, funds, or property to each primary beneficiary. For example, say a will leaves 90% of an estate to the spouse of the deceased and 5% each to the deceased’s two children. In this situation, the spouse and both children would all be primary beneficiaries. The distinguishing characteristic of a primary beneficiary is not how much of the estate the beneficiary is given, but whether they are first in line to receive a distribution of any size.



What is a contingent beneficiary?

A contingent beneficiary inherits only if certain conditions — often the death or disclaimer of the primary beneficiary — are met. This makes the contingent beneficiary of a will or trust the next individual in line to receive a distribution after the primary beneficiary. 

Whether a contingent beneficiary will receive anything depends on if the primary beneficiary inherits. Contingent beneficiaries will only receive a distribution if the primary beneficiary has passed away, triggers a disinheritance clause, or disclaims the inheritance. They are a backup recipient: when the primary beneficiary cannot collect the asset, the contingent beneficiary will receive it in their place. 

For example, suppose a will leaves an entire estate to the deceased’s spouse. However, the will also states that if the spouse passes away first, the estate will be split between the deceased’s two children. In this situation, the spouse is the primary beneficiary, and the children are contingent beneficiaries. The children won’t inherit anything unless and until the spouse is deceased. 

What is a secondary beneficiary?

A secondary beneficiary is essentially another name for a contingent beneficiary. However, in casual conversations, people may use the term “secondary beneficiary” to refer to an individual named second in a will or trust, and the term “contingent beneficiary” to identify the second-in-line heir under intestate succession laws. 

What is a successor trustee?

A successor trustee is the individual or entity that administers a trust after the original trustee passes away or becomes unable or unwilling to perform their duties.

A trustee is the person or institution who is responsible for managing trust assets and distributing them according to the terms of the trust. Typically, a trust will name an initial trustee or trustees and then at least one successor to take their place. Successor trustees are commonly spouses, adult children, friends, trusted professionals or trust companies. 

Do I need a probate litigation attorney to contest a will or trust?

There are no laws that require you to hire a lawyer if you want to contest a will or trust. However, working with an experienced probate litigation attorney will vastly increase your chance of success.

The legal process of contesting a will or trust is complex and requires in-depth knowledge of probate laws. Fortunately, probate litigation attorneys handle these complicated legal issues every day. Having a skilled lawyer to help you navigate the process will dramatically improve your ability to successfully challenge a will or trust.

Do I need a probate lawyer near me?

If you have a probate issue, hiring the best attorney familiar with the local probate court where your case is going to be heard and decided often will get you the best result.  Hiring someone local can be logistically favorable, but the reality is that familiarity with the court and its judges, processes and rules will help move your case along more efficiently and cost-effectively, getting you a better result sooner and likely for less legal spend.

Have questions? We’re happy to discuss.

Call (424) 320-9444 or email [email protected]

Read More:

The Guide to Family Trust Embezzlement

The Penalty for Stealing from an Estate

What Does a Probate Lawyer Do?

How Much Does A Probate Lawyer Cost?

About RMO, 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 https://rmolawyers.com/.

Share on:

Most Popular

Search Topics

Read More

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.

Related Articles