How to Choose a Life Insurance Beneficiary
Life insurance policies require that you choose a beneficiary. A life insurance beneficiary is a person or entity who will receive the death benefit from your policy when you die. When life insurance companies review beneficiary designations on applications, they are looking to see if there is an “insurable interest” between the insured person and the beneficiary. Read our guide to learn how to choose a life insurance beneficiary for your policy.
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UPDATED: Nov 6, 2020
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Choosing your primary beneficiary is one of the most important decisions you will make when you apply for term life insurance.
A close second and third are choosing the amount of coverage and term length. After all, you can do your homework and select the perfect amount of coverage, but if you leave it to the wrong person what good is it?
With this in mind, let’s make sure you get it right the first time; even though you will get another chance. More about this later. For now, though, these guidelines will set you on the right path. Use our FREE quote tool now to get a better idea of your term life insurance rates.
What is a Primary Beneficiary?
A beneficiary is a person or entity who will receive the death benefit from your policy if you die. The death benefit is also called the coverage amount or policy proceeds, but we’ll stick with death benefit to keep things simple.
The death benefit is usually paid by the life insurance company directly to the beneficiary. This money is generally not subject to income tax, but may be subject to estate tax.
A Beneficiary Must Have an Insurable Interest
When life insurance companies review beneficiary designations on applications, they are looking to see if there is an “insurable interest” between the insured person and the primary beneficiary. For life insurance purposes, a beneficiary has an insurable interest in the insured person when loss of that person would cause the beneficiary to suffer a financial loss.
Think about it regarding financial dependence. If someone is financially dependent upon you, that person is likely a reasonable choice for a primary beneficiary. The most obvious relationships are husbands/wives and parents/children, although there are many other options. There are also exceptions such as charitable donations, which we’ll look at more closely.
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How to Choose Your Primary Beneficiary
Life insurance policies require that you name a primary beneficiary. Many people do not give the process much thought, simply naming a spouse and/or children and then putting the whole thing out of mind.
But choosing your beneficiary and keeping that choice up to date is important. Here are some of the things to consider:
One of the advantages of life insurance is that proceeds payable to a named beneficiary pass outside of probate. Naming your “estate” as beneficiary subjects the money to the probate process, which can be both lengthy and costly. Life insurance proceeds are paid immediately to named beneficiaries.
The wording of beneficiary designations is very important. An improperly named beneficiary can have drastic effects on how the insurance proceeds are distributed.
You would not want to name your spouse simply by designating “husband” or “wife;” because this could result in an ex-spouse receiving proceeds intended for others. Accordingly, it is important to review insurance beneficiary designations in the event of divorce.
Naming specific children may mean that later-born children will be left out unless the beneficiary designation is changed.
Saying “Children of the insured, John Smith” could mean that your wife’s child from a previous marriage, whom you meant to include, is in fact excluded.
Saying “Children born of the marriage of John and Susan Smith” may mean excluding adopted children.
It is also advisable to name a “contingent” or secondary beneficiary in the event a primary beneficiary has predeceased you.
Many people choose the wording for their beneficiary designations in conjunction with both their agent/broker and the attorney who has drafted their wills and/or trusts.
It is not generally advisable to name minor children as beneficiaries, but rather to name a guardian for minor children and a trustee for insurance proceeds and other assets to be managed until they reach the age of majority. Likewise, if a child named as a beneficiary on your policy predeceases you and you would want the proceeds to go to their child(ren), you must specifically state such. You must also decide how such grandchildren will share in the proceeds with your other children, whether everything will be divided equally or whether the grandchildren will split what would have been their parent’s share.
It is very important to anticipate as many situations as possible. It is also vitally important to review your beneficiary designations on a regular basis. Changing beneficiary designations is easy, but you have to remember to do it. Unless you make an irrevocable designation (one that cannot be changed), as might be the case in a divorce settlement, you can change beneficiary designations as often as you like. You do not want to change beneficiaries frivolously, but you should change them when it is appropriate to do so.
The 3 Beneficiary Categories
Now that we know a bit more about what a primary beneficiary is, let’s look at the three categories of beneficiaries and discuss what does contingent beneficiary mean, primary vs contingent, all things you’ll need to consider for your policy.
- Primary – The primary beneficiary is the first in line to receive the policy death benefit. The most common arrangement is spouse/spouse. The first spouse is the insured person and the second spouse is the primary beneficiary.
- Contingent or Secondary – The contingent beneficiary meaning is the second beneficiary in line to receive the policy death benefit. The life insurance company will pay the death benefit in the absence of a primary beneficiary, such as when the insured person and primary beneficiary die at the same time.
- Tertiary – Tertiary means of the third order. Therefore, the tertiary beneficiary is third in line to receive the policy death benefit. As with the contingent beneficiary, the tertiary beneficiary’s receiving the death benefit is contingent upon the absence of both a primary and a contingent beneficiary. It’s not very common to name a tertiary beneficiary on a term life insurance policy. In fact, most life insurance applications don’t even include a tertiary beneficiary section.
Primary vs Contingent Beneficiary
So far we’ve talked about a primary beneficiary in the singular form. But you can certainly designate multiple primary and contingent beneficiaries of each type for your policy. For example, when it comes to the primary beneficiary vs contingent beneficiary, you can have two primary beneficiaries and three contingent beneficiaries. Or you can have five primary beneficiaries and no contingent beneficiaries. There are no limits to the number of beneficiaries you designate, as long as each one has an insurable interest.
When selecting multiple beneficiaries, you’ll need to make sure the primary percentage / contingent percentage split between all beneficiaries in a category total up to 100 percent. If you designate one primary beneficiary to receive 50 percent of the death benefit, the remaining primary beneficiaries combined must receive the remaining 50 percent.
This primary vs contingent beneficiary table shows two examples of splitting the death benefit among multiple beneficiaries.
If you do add multiple beneficiaries, you can also add a special designation to ensure the policy death benefit goes where you want it to.
- Per Capita – This means if a primary beneficiary dies before the insured person, the remaining beneficiaries will receive the deceased beneficiary’s share of the death benefit. This is the default method of distribution on most current policies and how the life insurance company will handle the proceeds unless directed otherwise.
For example, you name your parents as your primary beneficiaries. If one of your parents dies before or at the same time as you, the surviving parent will receive all of the death benefits.
- Per Stirpes – No, not a typo. Per stirpes means if a beneficiary dies before the insured person, that beneficiary’s share will pass to her heirs and not to the remaining beneficiaries as with per capita.
For example, you name your three brothers as your primary beneficiaries. If you one of your brothers dies before you (or at the same time), his share will go to his survivors and not to your remaining two brothers.
Common Types of Life Insurance Beneficiaries
So we know a beneficiary must have an insurable interest in you; meaning they would suffer a financial loss if you died. There are dozens of scenarios that could satisfy this requirement. Here we’ll take a look at some of the most common types of beneficiaries.
- Spouse – This is probably the most obvious and certainly the most common beneficiary designation. Even if the insured person is a non-working spouse, the surviving spouse would likely suffer financially upon his death.
- Ex-spouse – This is one you may not have expected. However, it’s quite common in divorce cases to have a court order to provide life insurance for the ex-spouse and children.
- Children – Another prominent designation, and you might wonder if you can make your children life insurance beneficiaries, (yes, you can, but be careful if the children are minors). Depending on state law, the proceeds could go to the children’s court-appointed legal guardian or set aside in a trust. This may not be what you want to happen.
- Will/Trust – Creating a will and/or trust is the most efficient way to ensure the policy death benefit goes exactly where you want it to. The document can spell out proceed distribution for any number of scenarios, as well as specify guardianship for surviving children.
- Parent – People often name their parents as beneficiaries. One example is when the parent is older and is financially dependent on you for support. Another is when your parents have co-signed for your student loans. A life insurance policy can help them repay those loans if needed.
- Bank – Banks often require life insurance policies as collateral on loans. A typical arrangement is to name the bank as primary beneficiary to receive the balance of the loan upon your death. You can then name a contingent beneficiary to receive the remaining death benefit.
- Corporations or Partnerships – Companies often take out life insurance policies to reduce risk and protect themselves from things like the loss of a key employee or the death of an owner. Examples of these types of policies are Key Person Life Insurance, Buy-Sell Life Insurance and Business Continuation Life Insurance. Business Continuation is an important life insurance consideration for small businesses. Often the company is named as the beneficiary.
- Others – Other beneficiary designations can include significant others, domestic partners, siblings or charities. Remember, the key is that an insurable interest is present. For example, if you wish to leave money to a charitable organization, you’ll need to demonstrate a pattern of giving to the particular charity. This can apply to a variety of situations in addition to these.
Nothing is Permanent, But Change
Okay, maybe that is a bit profound, but you get the point. You are not locked into your initial beneficiary designations forever. Not even close. You can easily change them as often as you’d like, throughout the life of your policy. Just remember, only the policy owner can do this. The policy owner and the insured person are often one and the same, but not always.
An Estate Planning Attorney Can be Your Best Friend
As we mentioned, the most efficient way to ensure your life insurance policy does what you want it to is to establish formal documentation such as a will or trust. In the absence of these, you risk the proceeds falling into unintended hands or worse, your estate. The latter means the money could be tied up in probate until the stated decides what to do with it.
You can avoid these potential headaches by consulting a good estate planning attorney. There are so many variations and changes among state and federal law that it wouldn’t be prudent for us (or any insurance agent) to advise you on these matters. There’s simply too much at stake for you to skip this important step.
Once you select your beneficiaries, be sure to let them know! You certainly don’t want them to be in the dark about your wishes, especially during such an emotionally trying time. Do all you can now to make things easier for them if the time comes.
And if you’re still unsure whom to name as your beneficiary, ask your agent for help. Think about why you are buying the policy in the first place. It’s likely because someone is financially dependent upon you.
Life Insurance Beneficiary FAQ
Designating a life insurance beneficiary to receive your death benefit is a necessary step in any life insurance application. When you purchase life insurance coverage as low as $13.38/month, you save money while you’re alive and protect your loved ones later.
Choosing a life insurance contingent beneficiary can leave you with a lot of questions. Deciding to secure your loved one’s future through a life insurance plan can keep them from being saddled with any final expenses you leave behind while also making sure that the family has a financial cushion to use for any expenses they need in the future. You could even be asking, “I am the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, what now?”
In this article, we’ll cover the difference between a life insurance beneficiary versus a will, who you can give your death benefit to, and even how you can contest a life insurance beneficiary if necessary. A lesson on life insurance beneficiaries awaits below.
Before learning more about life insurance beneficiaries, use our FREE quote tool now to get a better idea of your rates. If you have any questions about a life insurance policy, visit the QuickQuote life insurance learning center.
Top Life Insurance Companies by Market Share
To even begin thinking about who you want your beneficiary to be, you’ll need a policy. Who better to start with than the top life insurance companies in the industry? To help you get a better idea of who the current leaders are, we’ve compiled a table of the top life insurers by market share:
Top 10 Life Insurance Companies by Market Share (NAIC)
|Rank||Companies||Direct Premiums Written||Market Share|
|1||Northwestern Mutual Life||$10,517,115,452||6.42%|
|3||AARP (New York Life)||$9,295,848,300||5.68%|
|10||Minnesota Life/Securian Financial||$4,422,100,028||2.7%|
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Starting with these companies that have proven themselves will help you get a better understanding of life insurance companies and the policies they hold therein. After picking your company and policy, you’ll have to apply and get your rates before you can pick your beneficiary.
Sample Monthly Life Insurance Rates
While many risk factors will be considered, the most common examples that an insurer looks at are your age, gender, and whether you use or smoke tobacco. Here is a table reviewing those factors to give you a better idea of what you can expect to pay.
Average Annual Rates of Top 10 Life Insurers by Market Share
|Policy Holder Age and Tobacco Use||Average Annual Rates: Male||Average Annual Rates: Female|
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This is why you must apply for a policy when you’re young and healthy, as to get the most affordable rates available to you.
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What does it mean to be someone’s beneficiary?
First off, what does beneficiary mean? All this means is that you’ll receive the death benefit payout when the insured person passes away. The image below shows how the beneficiary might use the death benefit.
While it may seem like a lot of pressure to be labeled as a life insurance beneficiary, you typically have no more responsibility than collecting the death benefit when your loved one passes away.
Is a Social Security number required for a life insurance beneficiary? Not always, but in some cases, an insurer might request it to help verify the beneficiary’s identity later on.
Do life insurance companies contact beneficiaries? Due to privacy laws and contractual obligations, an insurer won’t reach out to the beneficiary and can’t even confirm if you’re a beneficiary before the insured person passes away. However, giving the company your life insurance beneficiary’s Social Security number will help confirm their identity.
When the insured dies, you can reach out to the company when you’re ready to discuss filing a claim.
How does a life insurance policy work after someone dies?
When the insured dies, you can file a claim through the insurance company. The insurance company will ask you to prove your identity and that the person insured has indeed passed away, usually with a death certificate. See in the video below for more info about what you’ll need to do to file a claim.
Once the death has been verified by the life insurer, the death benefit will be disbursed as laid out in the policy. Deciding who should get the death benefit depends on multiple factors.
Who should be your life insurance beneficiary?
Determining who you would like to be given the death benefit depends heavily on the people in your life and your individual situation. It should be someone you trust to enact your financial wishes as well as someone you trust to be smart with the remaining money.
What happens to life insurance with no beneficiary? If you do not choose a beneficiary with your policy, then the death benefit will be awarded to your next of kin.
Assigning a primary beneficiary ensures one person will receive the entire death benefit, and they can choose to spend it how they choose. The life insurance beneficiary rules for spouses are used to handle any financial struggles that may come after the death of a loved one.
If you’d like to make your life insurance beneficiary your spouse or child, you can easily have them receive the full payment to deal with any bills that need to be covered.
For example, Tom is starting his family and decides that he should protect them just in case the worst were to happen. Tom gets a 20-year term life insurance policy and names his wife as the primary beneficiary. When Tom passes away, his wife uses the death benefit to take care of his final arrangements and sets up a college fund for their growing children.
Can you have two primary beneficiaries on life insurance? Short answer? Yes.
If you have multiple people in your family that you would like to give the death benefit to, you can allocate different amounts or percentages to as many people as you want; they would then be the contingent beneficiary. Having two primary beneficiaries on a life insurance policy helps your family to receive the death benefit, exactly how you wish.
You may even be able to assign a percentage of your death benefit to a funeral home to pay for your final expenses, with the remainder going to your loved ones.
For example, Mariah decided that she would get a policy that would let her assign a funeral home some of the death benefits as she has decided some of the funeral particulars beforehand. After she passes and her final ceremony is handled, the rest of the funeral home payment goes to her estate, and the money she also allocated to her other beneficiaries is given to them.
Making a life insurance beneficiary trust can help provide a constant stream of income for your family after you pass. If you’re thinking “what if I want to name my child as the beneficiary,” you could also use it to hold the death benefit until a person comes of age.
Most ways you want to secure your money can be accomplished with a trust.
However, a trust is an irrevocable beneficiary, meaning that it can’t be changed by just you and won’t take effect until three years after your policy begins. The trustee, or financial institution, in this case, will ensure that your money is distributed as laid out in your policy.
For example, Sam is a single father and wants to make his son the sole beneficiary of his policy. Since Sam’s child is under 18, he has to use a trust to hold the money until his son reaches the legal age. If the worst were to happen, Sam could rest in peace knowing that his son will have a cushion as he enters the adult world.
A Funeral Home
Are you curious about designating a funeral home as your beneficiary? This can easily be accomplished with most insurance policies. You can allocate a portion of your death benefit to the funeral home, allowing you to have a plan for your final expenses when the time comes.
This funeral home assignment of your death benefit will be used to pay for the funeral, which can cost upwards of $7,640, and then the rest will be given to your estate. Doing so ensures that any other financial needs can be covered by your loved ones as well.
If this option is appealing to you or you don’t see the need to leave anyone a large death benefit, you can get the much more affordable final expense insurance.
For example, Tiana’s family has built a nice financial future for themselves through hard work and smart investments. Since she’s not worried about any medical bills or leaving behind any more money, she decides to get the much more affordable final expense insurance to cover her funeral.
When the time comes, her funeral is easily covered with some money even going back to her family’s estate.
Can a friend be a life insurance beneficiary?
The good news is that almost anyone above the legal adult age can be a life insurance beneficiary. However, there are important things you should consider when deciding who will fill this role.
As a rule, you should entrust your death benefit to someone who will be responsible and smart about how they spend or invest the money from your policy.
If you trust your friend and they have proven that they are there for you, then they would make an excellent choice to be your beneficiary.
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Can you change a life insurance beneficiary?
Who can change the beneficiary of a life insurance policy depends on the type of beneficiary and who assigned them in the first place. No policy has a specific beneficiary designation, and it’s completely up to you.
Different types of beneficiaries are allowed different privileges on the policy, and thus require special care when designating who will receive your death benefit.
This is the standard type of beneficiary that will suit most customers’ needs. During the life of the policy, you can choose to remove this revocable beneficiary assignment at any time. A revocable beneficiary is simple as you have complete control at all times.
If your beneficiary passes away before you die, then you can easily make sure that the death benefit will go to someone else who would be able to use it to your wishes.
The definition of an irrevocable beneficiary is someone who will receive your death benefit, but you can’t remove this beneficiary with only your approval. With an irrevocable beneficiary, you can’t remove them without the permission of the initial beneficiary.
One example of this is a financial trust. A trust can be used to secure money from large life insurance beneficiary taxes and can even provide a constant stream of income to your family. However, most trusts have a period of time before they become active.
Thus you can’t remove the trust without the permission of the trust holder.
Contesting a Life Insurance Beneficiary
Deciding to contest a life insurance beneficiary is an important decision as it will require a number of resources and legal help.
Submitting a claim is a much simpler process when there is a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy. The death benefits then go straight to that person. To be clear, the named beneficiary on the policy will receive the death benefit when the insured person dies.
If you act fast, you may be able to seek legal help, but if the beneficiary files a claim, they will most likely receive the death benefit.
If you have the money to secure the legal help needed to challenge the beneficiary, then you may be able to bring a case to court. But beware, life insurance beneficiary litigation could be a long and expensive process.
Who can change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy?
Whoever holds the policy is who can change the beneficiary on a life insurance policy and do it solely when they choose to, irrevocable beneficiaries excluded. All this usually requires is a signature and the information from the new beneficiary.
If you have an irrevocable beneficiary, both parties will have to agree.
This may be easier to challenge than a direct payment to one single beneficiary, as the money is held and untouchable by anyone unless outlined in the policy. Any other attempts could be seen as a forged life insurance beneficiary change.
Regardless, attempting to contest or change a beneficiary isn’t something that should be taken lightly, and you should make any decisions with the utmost care and respect for the deceased’s wishes.
Life Insurance Beneficiary: The Bottom Line
When you decided to purchase a life insurance policy, you most likely already had an idea of the people you want to protect if you pass away before they’re ready. This important decision requires time and care to figure out who you trust to follow your wishes and to use the death benefit how you decide.
Your life insurance beneficiary can be anyone you choose: a relative, a friend, or even your postman. All you need is their basic information and inform them how to claim the death benefit, and their responsibility is done until they receive the payment. At that point, it becomes imperative that you’ve chosen someone who will follow your instructions to the end.
Whether you have specific plans or don’t care what the money is used for, your wishes can be easily accomplished with the help of the right life insurance beneficiary choice.
Now that you know what is a primary beneficiary, and if you are ready to assign your life insurance beneficiary, use our FREE quote tool to see what they can expect to receive from your death benefit.
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Frequently Asked Questions: Life Insurance Beneficiary
Below are some FAQs regarding life insurance companies.
#1 – My situation has changed. Can I change my beneficiary after the policy is in force?
Absolutely, as long as you’re the policy owner. If so, you can change the beneficiary at any time with a simple form as long as the beneficiary isn’t irrevocable, in which case the beneficiary’s written consent would also be needed.
#2 – The application asks for the Social Security number of my beneficiary. I’m not comfortable giving this. Can I skip it?
Most life insurance companies will waive this requirement. However, the Social Security number will help the company identify the beneficiary if a claim is ever made.
#3 – What happens if all my beneficiaries die along with me? Will the life insurance company keep the money?
No. If you don’t have a will or trust, the death benefit would likely be paid to your estate. If you and your beneficiary die closely together, a claim could be made to the beneficiaries’ estate, but you would need proof such as medical records.
#4 – Can I name my best friend as my beneficiary?
If there is sufficient insurable interest on the part of your friend, it’s possible. Insurable interest means the beneficiary would suffer a measurable financial loss if you were to die. Some situations where listing a friend may be appropriate would be if you shared a mortgage, or if the friend depended on you financially in some way.
#5 – I am not married, and I have no children. Whom should I name as my beneficiary?
In general, listing any family member is usually not a problem. You can always change your beneficiary later if you get married or have children. You can also list your estate as the beneficiary. However, be sure to talk to your financial advisor if estate taxes might be a concern. Putting together a trust to list as your beneficiary is another option.
#6 – A life insurance policy was court-ordered due to my divorce. How can I be sure that my ex-spouse won’t change the beneficiary?
Only the policy owner can change the beneficiary. You can also make the beneficiary designation irrevocable. An irrevocable beneficiary can only be changed with the written consent of the policy owner and beneficiary. If the beneficiary is a child, consult your attorney about forming a trust or similar arrangement.
#7 – Can I name my minor child as a beneficiary?
If a minor child is a beneficiary at the time of a death claim, the life insurance company will likely pay the death benefit to the minor’s legal guardian or to your estate, unless state law permits otherwise. If you’re uncomfortable with this designation, visit with an estate attorney to form a trust to name as beneficiary.
#8 – What happens if I have two primary beneficiaries with a 50/50 split, and one dies with me in an accident? What happens to the remainder of the death benefit?
In this case, the surviving primary beneficiary would receive 100 percent of the death benefit unless specific instructions were given by the policy owner stating otherwise.
#9 – Why can’t I find where the life insurance company lists my beneficiaries in my policy?
Most policies list the beneficiaries on the application copy, located in the back of the policy. The application copy is a part of your policy, including your beneficiary designations. If you want more, you may request a beneficiary confirmation letter from the company to keep with your policy.
#10 – I want to name a trust as my beneficiary, but it’s not ready yet. Can I add it later?
In most cases, yes. A few life insurance companies will require the trust to be completed before the insurance policy is placed in force. Check with your life insurance agent to be sure.
#11 – My bank is requiring a term life insurance policy because of a loan I took out from them. What is the best way to take care of this requirement?
Once your new policy is in force, you can turn in a collateral assignment on the policy for the balance of the loan. The life insurance company can provide the forms to you. A collateral assignment provides the bank with a death benefit equal to the amount of the loan balance. Any death benefit more than the loan balance will be paid to your beneficiary.
#12 – My beneficiary is living in another country and does not have a U.S. Social Security number. Can I still name her as my beneficiary?
In most cases, yes. If your beneficiary is in another country that does not have relations with the United States, it’s best to ask your life insurance agent to check with the life insurance company before applying. It would also be prudent to review the laws regarding large financial transfers between countries to avoid a hefty tax.
#13 – Can I name a charity as my beneficiary?
Sometimes. Most life insurance companies will allow this beneficiary designation as long as you’ve made regular donations to the charity and have kept records (via receipts or income tax returns). The company will likely have limits on the amount of coverage you can buy for this purpose.
#14 – Does my will supersede the beneficiary designations in my term life insurance policy?
The life insurance company will pay out the death benefit proceeds to the beneficiaries named in the policy unless court-ordered to pay the proceeds differently. If you ever change your will, be sure also to change your policy as well. Whether to use only a life insurance beneficiary versus a will is a decision that may make your final wishes easier to execute.
Your beneficiary designation will most likely be relatively simple. However, if you have unique circumstances or just don’t feel comfortable figuring this out on your own, let us know. We may recommend the help of an estate planning attorney if appropriate.
Either way, you’ll be able to rest more comfortably knowing you’ve done all you can to protect your loved ones with term life insurance.