Life Insurance Primary Vs. Contingent Beneficiaries

Life insurance beneficiaries receive the death benefit after the death of the insured. The primary beneficiary is first in line to receive the payout. The contingent beneficiary receives the benefit in the event that the primary beneficiary is no longer living when the insured dies.


The categories of beneficiaries are primary and contingent. Contingent beneficiaries are called secondary and tertiary. Secondary is the first contingent beneficiary, and tertiary is the second contingent beneficiary.

Beneficiaries per Category

There can be more than one beneficiary per category. Amounts or percentages should be specified for distribution to each beneficiary.

Contingent Beneficiaries

Contingent beneficiaries are designated per capita and per stirpes. Per capita (per person or per head) means that only the beneficiary may receive the death benefit. Per stirpes (line of descendents) means that the death benefit will be divided up between the children of the beneficiary if he is no longer living.

Uniform Simultaneous Death Act

The Uniform Simultaneous Death Act addresses the issue of both the insured and primary beneficiary dying at approximately the same time. If the insured individual and the primary beneficiary die simultaneously and it is not possible to tell who died first, in a car accident for example, the death benefit is paid directly to the contingent beneficiary as if the primary beneficiary died first.

Common Disaster Provision

If the primary beneficiary outlives the insured for less than 30 days, the contingent beneficiary receives the payout. The limit on number of days could be 10, 15 or 30, depending on the policy.