When you buy life insurance, you choose a primary beneficiary. This is the person or organization that will receive the policy’s death benefit when you die. But you should also name a contingent beneficiary — this is the person who collects your insurance payout if none of your primary life insurance beneficiaries can accept the money.
Naming at least one contingent or secondary beneficiary can protect your insurance proceeds from entering a lengthy legal process in probate court or being taken by creditors.
Failing to name a contingent beneficiary can cause your insurance payout to go through probate and potentially be subject to estate taxes or debt collection.
Most people name a family member, but you could also name a charity or trust.
You can name multiple contingent beneficiaries.
Do you need a contingent beneficiary?
It’s a good idea to name a contingent beneficiary for your life insurance policy, just like you should have secondary beneficiaries for your will, trust, and retirement plans.
Naming a contingent beneficiary ensures that your life insurance proceeds are paid out according to your wishes.
If you don’t name a contingent beneficiary and your primary beneficiary is unable to claim the death benefit, a judge will decide where the money goes.
This process can take months, and it means your loved ones might not get the financial support you intended for them.
→ Learn what happens if your beneficiary passes away before you
Who should be your contingent beneficiary?
Pick a contingent beneficiary who depends on your financial support, or who will support your family — or whoever will inherit your assets — when you die, like a family member or your child’s legal guardian.
Your contingent beneficiary shouldn’t be the person who relies on your financial support the most — that person should be your primary beneficiary. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary on their policy, for example.
If you’re unsure who to name, a trust or a charity are good alternatives.
Avoid choosing minor children as beneficiaries, since the insurer won’t pay out to anyone under your state's "age of majority" — 18 in every state except Alabama and Nebraska, where it’s 19, and Mississippi, where it’s 21. 
→ Learn more about choosing a life insurance beneficiary
How to name a contingent beneficiary
You can name a contingent beneficiary the same way you name a primary beneficiary — by listing them in your life insurance policy.
You’ll need to provide some basic details about each beneficiary, including:
You can name more than one contingent beneficiary and designate each to receive a percentage of your death benefit, just as you would with primary beneficiaries.
Your policy may allow you to name people in other beneficiary tiers (tertiary, quaternary, and so on), but primary and contingent beneficiaries are enough for most people.
Review your beneficiaries regularly, especially after major life events or if your estate planning strategy evolves, so you can correct contact information or change a beneficiary as needed.
Ideally, your primary beneficiary would never die before you, but life insurance is about safeguarding your loved ones from worst-case scenarios.
Designating a contingent beneficiary will potentially save your loved ones from going through a lengthy and complicated probate process while grieving.
Frequently asked questions
How does having a contingent beneficiary work?
A primary beneficiary receives the life insurance death benefit when you die. If your primary beneficiary can’t claim the death benefit, the money goes to your contingent beneficiary.
Who should be your contingent beneficiary?
You can name anyone who is not already a primary beneficiary on your policy as a contingent beneficiary. You can name any person or entity as your contingent beneficiary. Many people name a relative or a trust.
What happens if there is no contingent beneficiary?
If you don’t name a contingent beneficiary and all your primary beneficiaries die before you, then the death benefit goes to your estate and a judge decides who gets the money.
Do you need to have a contingent beneficiary?
You don’t need a contingent beneficiary, but having one is highly recommended. Having a contingent beneficiary ensures your policy is paid out according to your wishes.