Beneficiary Forms in Estate Planning: Primary and Contingent Beneficiaries

As we have previously discussed, one of the most important gifts you can leave your loved ones is to put a comprehensive estate plan in place. In addition to putting wills, trusts and other estate documents in place, it is critical to an efficient estate process to utilize and confirm beneficiary forms.

As we have previously discussed, beneficiary forms have all different names, whether a Transfer on Death designation (TOD) or a Pay of Death designation (POD), the purpose of the form is the same – you are asking that when you pass, the designated asset go to a specific person or trust.  An example of a beneficiary form from September of 2020 that was used by civilian federal employees can be found here.

As the general rule is that the assets will go to who you designate on the beneficiary form, and not to who you list in your will or trust, choosing a primary and contingent beneficiary that is in line with your estate plan ensures that your estate and assets will go to those you intend in the precise manner in which you have intended.

You can list individual people or persons as beneficiaries or you can list an already created and formed trust (whether revocable or irrevocable).  The choice will be determined by the specific circumstances of your types of assets and your distribution wishes.

On most beneficiary forms you can designate a primary and a contingent beneficiary. A primary beneficiary is first in line to acquire the assets left in your estate. Upon your passing, your estate and all of your assets will be distributed appropriately per your direction. In the event that a primary beneficiary predeceases you, cannot be found, or refuses the inheritance, a contingent beneficiary can be named to be next in line.

A contingent beneficiary is essentially a backup beneficiary. Naming a contingent beneficiary is a good safeguard because if, for some unfortunate reason, your primary beneficiary passes away before you, you might not be in the any condition or have the ability to appoint a new primary beneficiary. Establishing a contingent beneficiary upfront can give you the peace of mind of a beneficiary succession without requiring court involvement.

If you are looking to put an estate plan in place or just want to make sure you are appropriately designating your intended beneficiaries on your beneficiary forms, please contact us to set up an initial consultation via email at or by phone at 804.423.1382.  We would like to help.