What happens if one primary beneficiary dies: A comprehensive guide

When creating a will or trust, naming your primary beneficiary is one of the most crucial decisions. This individual stands first in line to inherit your assets after your passing. But what happens if this primary beneficiary predeceases you? This situation, while disheartening, is more common than you might think. Understanding the implications and planning accordingly is paramount. This article delves into what happens when a primary beneficiary in the UK predeceases the will or trust creator. 


Probate and beneficiaries

When someone passes away, their estate usually goes through probate. This is when a court determines the validity of a will and ensures that assets are distributed according to that will or according to the rules of intestacy if there is no will. The primary beneficiary is central to this process. If they predecease the will or trust the creator, different restrictions apply. 


The basics: Where do the assets go?

  1. Secondary or contingent beneficiaries: 

Most wills or trusts also name secondary or contingent beneficiaries. These individuals or entities stand to inherit if the primary beneficiary is unable or unwilling to do so. If the primary beneficiary predeceases you, the assets generally pass to the secondary beneficiaries. 

  1. Per stirpes vs per capita:

If a will doesn’t specify, and the primary beneficiary predeceases, the inheritance could be divided per stirpes (the deceased beneficiary’s share is divided among their heirs) or per capita (the deceased beneficiary’s share is divided among the remaining living beneficiaries). 

  1. Intestacy rules:

If no named secondary beneficiaries exist, the estate may be distributed according to the UK’s intestacy rules, which generally favour close relatives like spouses, civil partners, and children. 


Plan ahead: Review and update

It’s important to review regularly and, if necessary, update your will or trust. Life changes such as marriage, divorce, birth of a child, or death of a primary beneficiary should trigger a review. 


Common misconceptions

  • The assets will automatically pass to the deceased beneficiary’s children or spouse: 

This is not always the case. The specifics of inheritance depend on the wording of the will or trust and the applicable laws. 

  • The government will seize the assets: 

The estate might go to the Crown if there are no living relatives, but this is a last resort. There are many layers of potential heirs considered before this happens. 


Why it’s essential to specify secondary beneficiaries

 Having secondary or contingent beneficiaries named in your will or trust is not just an advisable practice; it’s an essential one. It’s a straightforward way to ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes, even if your primary beneficiary predeceases you. 


Legal help matters

The complexity of wills, trusts, and estate planning underscores the importance of getting expert advice. An experienced estate planning solicitor can guide you through the process, ensuring your wishes are clearly articulated and legally sound. 


Nobody can predict the future, but everyone can prepare for it. Secure peace of mind knowing that your loved ones will be cared for according to your wishes, no matter what happens. If you’re unsure about the status of your will or trust, or if your primary beneficiary has predeceased you and you need to make changes, now is the time to act.

Contact  Wills & Trusts  for professional, compassionate guidance through this important process. We are experts in UK estate planning law and are here to help you every step of the way. 


Paula O'Reilly

December 8, 2023