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A life insurance beneficiary is someone specifically named to receive the death benefits from a life insurance policy. It can be an individual, trust, charity or estate. Depending on your goals and circumstances, you may also decide what type of beneficiary to have. You can choose to name primary, contingent and tertiary beneficiaries. You also determine whether to have a revocable or irrevocable beneficiary.

Although it's also possible to not have a beneficiary in a life insurance policy, the designation helps ensure that the death benefits are handled responsibly and directed according to your wishes.

Who Can Be a Life Insurance Beneficiary?

The choice of a life insurance beneficiary should be made with careful consideration of the policyholder's financial goals, family dynamics and legal concerns. Understanding the various options and their implications can help you make an informed decision that aligns with your intentions and needs.

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    Family members, friends or anyone with an insurable interest can be named as beneficiaries. This includes spouses, children, business partners or even friends. Naming an individual allows the policyholder to provide financial support to someone who may rely on them financially or emotionally.

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    Trusts are legal entities that can be named as beneficiaries to manage assets, including life insurance proceeds. By naming a trust, the policyholder can exert greater control over how the funds are used, ensuring that they are distributed according to specific guidelines or utilized for particular purposes, such as education or care for a special needs family member.

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    You can also name non-profit organizations as beneficiaries to receive life insurance benefits. This option allows the policyholder to leave a lasting legacy, supporting a cause or organization they believe in.

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    When life insurance benefits are paid to an estate, they may be subject to probate. This can be time-consuming and costly. Additionally, the distribution of funds may not align with the policyholder's specific wishes, as they will be distributed according to the state's laws.

Types of Life Insurance Beneficiaries

Life insurance policies offer flexibility in naming beneficiaries, allowing policyholders to align the distribution of death benefits with their specific needs and goals. Understanding the different types of beneficiaries and their roles can help craft a strategy that ensures the benefits are used as intended and support the right individuals or entities.

  • Primary Beneficiary: The primary beneficiary is the main recipient of the death benefits. This could be a spouse, child, business partner or any individual with an insurable interest — which refers to a financial or personal stake in an asset or a person's life, where the loss or damage of the asset or the death of the individual would result in a financial loss or hardship.

The primary beneficiary is the first in line to receive the benefits, and it's essential to consider their financial needs and relationship to the policyholder when making this designation.

  • Contingent Beneficiary: Also known as a secondary beneficiary, the contingent beneficiary receives the death benefits if the primary beneficiary is unable to, such as in the case of predeceasing the policyholder. Naming a contingent beneficiary provides a backup plan, ensuring the benefits are still directed according to your wishes if the primary beneficiary is unavailable.

  • Tertiary Beneficiary: A tertiary beneficiary is a third-level beneficiary, rarely used but available in some policies. This designation provides an additional layer of security, allowing for further distribution planning if both the primary and contingent beneficiaries cannot receive the benefits. While not commonly utilized, the option to name a tertiary beneficiary can be valuable in specific scenarios, such as extensive estate planning or when there are multiple layers of potential recipients.

  • Irrevocable Beneficiary: An irrevocable beneficiary is one whose rights to the death benefits are vested, meaning the policyholder cannot change or remove this beneficiary without their consent. This type of beneficiary provides assurance to the recipient but limits the policyholder's flexibility in making changes.

  • Revocable Beneficiary: Unlike irrevocable beneficiaries, revocable beneficiaries can be changed or removed by the policyholder at any time without consent. This allows for greater flexibility in adjusting the policy to reflect changes in life circumstances or financial goals.

  • Minor Beneficiaries: Naming minor children as beneficiaries requires careful planning, as legal challenges can arise. Using trusts or legal guardians can facilitate the transfer of benefits to minors without legal complications.

What Happens If You Don't Have a Life Insurance Beneficiary?

The decision to name a beneficiary in a life insurance policy is not merely a procedural step; it can be a fundamental part of financial and estate planning. Understanding what happens if no beneficiary is named can help you avoid potential pitfalls.

  • Probate Process: If no beneficiary is named, the death benefit may become part of the insured's estate and go through probate. Probate is a legal process that includes the validation of the deceased's will, inventory of assets, paying off debts and taxes and the distribution of remaining assets to rightful heirs and beneficiaries. The whole ordeal can cause delays in the distribution of funds and may involve legal fees.

  • Legal Disputes: Without a named beneficiary, potential legal battles among heirs may arise. Different family members or entities may claim the right to the death benefits, leading to disputes that require legal resolutions.

  • Lack of Control: When no beneficiary is named, the court decides the distribution of the death benefits, possibly against the insured's wishes. The distribution will follow the state's intestacy laws, which may not align with the policyholder's intentions. By not naming a beneficiary, the policyholder loses the opportunity to direct the funds in a way that fulfills specific intentions.

  • Potential Tax Implications: Death benefits paid to an estate rather than a named beneficiary may be subject to estate taxes or other tax liabilities.

How Do Life Insurance Beneficiaries Get the Death Benefits?

Understanding the process of receiving death benefits from a life insurance policy can help beneficiaries ensure they receive the financial support intended by the policyholder.

Here's an overview of the process, detailing each step and what beneficiaries can expect.


Claim Submission

The first step in receiving death benefits is filing a claim with the insurance company. This typically involves submitting a claim form, a copy of the death certificate and any other documents required by the insurance company.



Once the claim is submitted, the insurance company verifies the claim and policy details. This may include confirming the validity of the policy, the cause of death and the beneficiary's identity. The verification process ensures the claim is legitimate and the benefits are paid to the correct recipient. The insurer may request additional information or documentation to complete the verification.


Payment Options

After verification, the beneficiary can choose how to receive the death benefits. The options may include:

  • Lump Sum: A one-time payment of the entire death benefit. This option provides immediate access to the funds. It can be useful for covering immediate expenses or investing as the beneficiary sees fit.

  • Annuities: Structured payouts over time, providing regular income. Annuities can be suitable for those seeking long-term financial stability, as they provide ongoing support.

  • Installments: Similar to annuities, installments provide the death benefits in periodic payments over a specified period.

  • Retained Asset Account: Some insurers may offer a retained asset account, where the death benefit is held in an interest-bearing account, and the beneficiary can access the funds as needed.

Do Life Insurance Beneficiaries Pay Taxes?

Generally, life insurance death benefits are not subject to federal income taxes, allowing beneficiaries to receive the full amount as intended by the policyholder. Certain situations may trigger tax liabilities. For example, if the death benefits are paid in installments or held in an interest-bearing account, the interest earned on the payout may be subject to income tax. Additionally, if the policyholder's estate is named as the beneficiary and is subject to estate taxes, the death benefits may be included in the taxable estate. In some states, inheritance taxes may also apply, depending on the relationship between the beneficiary and the deceased.

Tips When Choosing a Life Insurance Beneficiary

Choosing the right life insurance beneficiary requires careful consideration of various factors, including the needs and goals of potential recipients, legal and tax implications and the overall financial plan. Here are some essential aspects to consider when selecting a life insurance beneficiary:


Assess Needs and Goals

Consider the financial needs, family dynamics and long-term goals of potential beneficiaries. Think about who relies on you financially and how the death benefits can best support them. For example, if providing for a child's education is a priority, naming a trust for that purpose might be appropriate.


Consider Multiple Beneficiaries

Consider naming multiple beneficiaries if you have several individuals or entities you wish to support. You can specify the percentage of the death benefit each should receive, allowing for a tailored distribution that reflects your wishes. Naming contingent beneficiaries also provides a clear path for the distribution of benefits if the primary beneficiary is not available.


Seek Professional Guidance

You may consult with financial or legal professionals who specialize in estate planning or life insurance. They can provide personalized guidance based on your specific situation, helping you navigate complex issues such as taxes, legal considerations or unique family dynamics.

Common Mistakes Related to Life Insurance Beneficiaries

Mistakes in selecting life insurance beneficiaries can lead to unintended consequences, delays and legal challenges. Here are some common errors you may want to avoid:

  • Not Updating Beneficiaries: Failing to update beneficiaries after significant life events such as marriage, divorce or childbirth can lead to having unintended recipients. Regular reviews and updates ensure the policy reflects your current situation and intentions.

  • Naming Minors Directly: While it may seem logical to name a minor child as a beneficiary, legal challenges may arise when minors are named directly. Minors may not have the legal capacity to receive the funds, leading to court-appointed guardianship or other legal complexities. Utilizing a trust or naming a guardian can provide a more effective way to leave benefits to a minor.

  • Lack of Specificity: Being vague or general in naming beneficiaries can lead to confusion and potential disputes. For example, naming "my children" without specifying names may lead to disagreements among potential recipients. Clearly identifying beneficiaries by name and relationship helps avoid ambiguity and ensures that the benefits are distributed as intended.

  • Failure to Communicate with Beneficiaries: Simply naming a beneficiary without informing them can lead to delays and confusion. If they are not aware that they are beneficiaries, they will not know to start the claims process. Communicating with beneficiaries about the policy, where it's located and what to expect can facilitate a smoother process when the time comes.

Frequently Asked Questions About Life Insurance Beneficiaries

Here, we address some of the most frequently asked questions to provide clarity and guidance on life insurance beneficiaries.

About Melissa Wylie

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Melissa Wylie is a Content and SEO Manager at MoneyGeek. Melissa has worked in the financial content space since 2018 and has spent much of that time focused on all things small business.

Prior to joining MoneyGeek, Melissa held SEO positions at Bankrate and LendingTree. Melissa’s work has also appeared on LendingTree-owned websites ValuePenguin and MagnifyMoney.

Melissa began her career at American City Business Journals in 2015 as a reporter for the company’s women-focused publication Bizwomen. Melissa has a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism from the University of North Texas. Melissa relies on her foundation in journalism to craft content that simplifies complex financial topics to help everyone feel confident when making decisions with their money.

Melissa's other work can be read on LendingTree and Bizwomen.