What is a Beneficiary?

A beneficiary is any person or organization that receives assets from a person after that person’s death.

Beneficiary Example

For example, let's say John Smith dies and his will indicates that his two children, Sally and Joe, are listed as his beneficiaries. John's assets would go to both children, in whatever proportion he chooses. (He could divide his assets equally or decree that one of the beneficiaries receives a larger amount than the other.)

The will is a legal document that indicates how a person wants his or her estate (money and property) to be distributed after death. A will may also describe any wishes for funeral and burial arrangements, and it may designate guardians for minor children.

When the testator (the person who created the will) dies, the executor, who is named in the will, administers the distribution of the estate to the beneficiaries. It is important to note that a testator or insured person can change a beneficiary at almost any time, for any reason, and should keep the original copy of the related documents in a safe place. A copy should also be given to the executor.

Why a Beneficiary is Important

Naming a beneficiary of your assets is part of the process of estate planning. However, court procedures, called probate, are often required to pass assets from a deceased person to beneficiaries, because the testator is no longer around to sign deeds and other documents necessary to transfer the assets.

Without naming beneficiaries to your financial assets, relatives can spend a lifetime (and their life savings) battling over your assets. In addition, friends and nonblood relatives can get entirely ignored, and former spouses could bequeath your assets to their children from other marriages. This may be what you intended, but without an adequate estate plan, you can never be sure. It can be intimidating, but it is a necessary step to ensuring that your assets end up where you want them, without the interference of the Internal Revenue Service or third parties.

What is a Contingent Beneficiary?

A contingent beneficiary receives the benefits of an account if the primary beneficiary is deceased, can’t be found, or refuses the inheritance. Examples of contingent beneficiaries can include people, organizations, estates, charities or trusts.