What Is a Beneficiary
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What Is a Beneficiary?

Commonly, a beneficiary is an individual that receives returns or benefits from something. In the insurance field, individuals generally use the term beneficiary in reference to the recipient of life insurance returns. Individuals that receive dispersals from a trust, will, pension, or retirement account, are also beneficiaries.

Key Takeaways

  • A beneficiary is an individual that receives the benefits of something left to them by another individual.
  • Individuals or organizations (like charities, non-profits, or trusts) can be beneficiaries.
  • There are beneficiaries for life insurance plans, trusts, wills, and occasionally retirement accounts.
  • Designating relatives as beneficiaries is a way of safeguarding their financial future.
  • If minor children are beneficiaries, it might be required to create a trust for them.

Understanding Beneficiaries

You can designate any individual or organization as beneficiaries. The beneficiaries are the organizations or individuals that receive the payments or disbursals from your will or accounts. You can place different terms on the payments of funds, like a minimum age condition. Beneficiaries do not have to be normal people. They can be organizations like charities, trusts, or non-profits.

You might need to designate beneficiaries for the below reasons:

  • You have a life insurance policy and are required to designate an individual to receive the returns.
  • You would like to designate an individual to receive trust fund distributions.
  • You have a retirement account, and you want someone to name someone to inherit the funds.
  • You are required to decide who is going to receive your assets through a will.
  • You want to designate an individual to receive annuity payments should you pass away.

Who Should You Designate as a Beneficiary?

Individuals typically designate those that are closest to them as beneficiaries. Such as:

  • Close family members such as a spouse or your children
  • Other loved ones or trustworthy friends
  • The guardian(s) of your child(ren)
  • Your trust
  • A non-profit organization or charity you would wish to support

When designating beneficiaries, you should contemplate if individuals in your life would be in financial challenges should pass away. If they would, this is a perfect reason to take care of them by designating them as a beneficiary. This is particularly true in cases of life insurance. One of the reasons individuals commonly pay for life insurance is to make sure that their loved ones can still manage day to day expenses in the event of their death. A lot of parents purchase life insurance as a safety net to take care of their children, whether minor or adult.

Retirement plans and some pensions allow you to designate beneficiaries. That way, should you pass away prior to using your full retirement or pension benefits, your loved ones are taken care of. This is one other way to create financial safety for your family. Additionally, you are going to benefit from the tranquility it is going to give you.

When you are listing beneficiaries, you should be as specific as you can. This helps in avoiding any confusion or mistaken identity. To guarantee you are leaving without doubt, you need to include your beneficiaries’ full names and SSN’s. You want to guarantee no foul-ups if you have a previous spouse, stepchildren, adopted children, or other particular situation. Being unmistakable concerning your wishes can help avoid conflicts among loved ones down the road.

When Your Beneficiaries Are Minor Children?

When you have minor children, there are particular considerations to designating beneficiaries. Minor children are unable to just receive payouts from life insurance or inheritances as an adult would. When minor children are beneficiaries of a life insurance policy, the payouts go to their legal guardian. Subject to state laws, the same is usually true when minor children are beneficiaries of considerable inheritances.

To work around this issue, you might decide to devise a trust. You can then designate the trust as the beneficiary of your will or life insurance policy. That way, the payouts would go into your trust for your child(ren). Your trustee would then oversee those funds in your trust for your minor child(ren). When you go with this decision, be sure you select a trustee you believe can manage this responsibility. It would be a good idea if you considered whether this individual is trustworthy to handle your child’s finances.

Retirement Plan Beneficiaries

Retirement accounts usually allow account holders to designate a beneficiary. That way, if the account holder passes away prior to using the funds, they can designate someone else to receive the payouts.

Being designated as a beneficiary of a retirement account comes with tax considerations. A spousal beneficiary of an eligible retirement plan such as an IRA or a 401(k) could be able to roll a retirement plan inheritance into their retirement account for tax advantages.

For non-spousal beneficiaries, the choices are more restricted. There was an alteration in the law in 2019 known as the SECURE act. The law now necessitates non-spouses that inherit eligible retirement accounts to take dispersals equal to the entire account value within a decade.

The tax laws for these plans can get complex, particularly following the passage of the act. The tax laws are continually developing, so these could change again. When you have inherited a retirement plan and have worries about managing it, it is wise to speak with an attorney.

Annuity Beneficiaries

An annuity is simply an insurance product that provides a continual source of income throughout retirement. Annuities enable you to invest funding now and receive payments down the road. The premiums you pay for the annuity are typically invested into investment funds. But there are other choices too. You are going to usually pay higher fees for annuities than you would for other retirement planning devices.

Various annuities offer different kinds of payout plans. With some annuities, payments cease when the annuity’s owner passes away. With others, there is an alternative for a spouse or beneficiary to get payouts following the annuity owner’s passing. This is something to be mindful of when you are searching for an annuity. The payment plan options are going to be detailed in the original contract you sign.

Perhaps you are searching for an annuity that is going to continue to take care of a spouse or other beneficiary following your passing. In that case, you should speak to a financial advisor or other finance professional. Should the account increase in value, there might be taxes owed for annuity beneficiaries. This is where an estate planning attorney’s proficiency could come in handy.

Life Insurance Beneficiaries

Life insurance is a vital estate planning device. Being parents, having life insurance provides peace of mind. They know that should they were to pass away; their children would be taken care of. The policy also offers tax benefits compared to other kinds of inheritances. Returns from life insurance are not taxed since they are not thought of as income.

Can You Switch Life Insurance Beneficiary Designations?

The answer to this question could be either a yes or a no. It is subject on the kinds of life insurance beneficiaries you have (revocable or irrevocable).

Revocable Beneficiaries Vs Irrevocable Beneficiaries

Revocable Beneficiaries: Many life insurance policies list revocable beneficiaries. Therefore, the policyholder can switch the beneficiaries and revoke the policy completely if they want to. They would be required to file some documents with their life insurance company. Switching beneficiary designations is an important thing to do when situations change in your life. You might be required to switch a beneficiary designation should you experience a divorce, should a beneficiary pass away, or when you initiate a trust. If you have experienced a considerable life occurrence or an extended period has gone by since you designated your beneficiaries, it might be time to go over your selections and your plans for your future self.

Irrevocable Beneficiaries: Life insurance policies that have irrevocable beneficiaries are somewhat more complex. When having an irrevocable beneficiary, you are unable switch beneficiaries lacking their approval. Your present beneficiary and any provisional beneficiaries would need to consent to the change. In that sense, irrevocable beneficiaries are practically guaranteed to receive returns from the life insurance policy unless they accept to be withdrawn. When adding irrevocable beneficiaries to your life insurance plan, you need to be sure concerning them. Therefore, individuals sometimes designate their child(ren) as irrevocable beneficiaries.

Primary Beneficiaries Vs Provisional Beneficiaries

The two principal kinds of beneficiaries are primary beneficiaries and provisional beneficiaries. The primary beneficiary is the initial individual (or entity) you choose in order to accept the payouts from a life insurance policy, will, retirement accounts, etc. When this individual is available to receive a payment or inheritance, it is going to go to them.

Provisional beneficiaries (or alternative beneficiaries) are the secondary beneficiaries. They receive the returns only when the primary beneficiary has passed away. is inaccessible, or declines to receive the returns. Individuals usually designate charities as provisional beneficiaries. That way, should your intended beneficiary pass away before you do, your chosen charity can receive the returns.

It’s wise to list provisional beneficiaries since it can hinder family conflict following your passing. Take, for instance, a circumstance in which your primary beneficiary is your spouse. If your spouse passes away before you and you have designated a trust the provisional beneficiary, it is going to hinder your children from fighting over the returns. The returns are going to be in the trust that you designated as a provisional beneficiary. The trustee you decided on is going to then distribute the trust funds in the trust beneficiaries’ best interests.

You are able to list more than one provisional beneficiary on life insurance or a retirement plans. When you do this, you are required to list the percentages that each provisional beneficiary is required receive. Obviously, the total percentage needs to add up to 100.

How an Attorney Can Be of Assistance

Tax laws on inheritances, life insurance, and retirement plans can turn complex. The laws are also continually evolving. Regardless of if you are a beneficiary of an inheritance or are planning for the future of your family’s, an estate planning attorney can be of assistance.


  1. Kimberly Lekman, E. (2022, December 20). What is a beneficiary? A simple explanation. FindLaw. Retrieved December 20, 2022, from https://www.findlaw.com/forms/resources/estate-planning/what-is-a-beneficiary.html

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