What types of beneficiaries are named in a Will?

Whether you are choosing the beneficiaries of your estate or you have recently been made aware you are the beneficiary of a Will, it can be confusing to understand the different types of beneficiaries there are and how that can affect what is being inherited and how it is distributed.

A beneficiary will be named in the will by the testator, their full legal name, not a nickname or any other name they may go by, should be used in order to eliminate any question or confusion about who the intended beneficiary is. Quite often an address will be given as well to reduce ambiguity and also help the executor to locate the beneficiary.

It does sometimes happen that a beneficiary is not specifically mentioned by name in a Will, this can happen when the testator has written a clause into their Will that allows children or grandchildren of a named beneficiary to inherit their parents share in the circumstance that the named beneficiary has predeceased the testator.

There are 2 main types of beneficiaries, the first being a residual beneficiary (sometimes referred to as primary) and a legacy beneficiary, both types have more specific subsets of beneficiary within them.

Residual Beneficiary

As the name suggests a residual beneficiary receives the residue of the estate. The residue is whatever is left after everything else has been paid. There is an order of priority when it comes to the distribution of an estate. Before residual beneficiaries can get their share the estate’s expenses, debts and any inheritance tax that’s due must be paid.

Residual beneficiaries are also the last beneficiary type to receive their share of the estate, this means all other types of beneficiaries must receive their inheritance before the residual estate can be distributed to the residual beneficiary. If there is nothing left in the estate once everything else has been paid there will be nothing for the residual beneficiaries to inherit.

If there are still assets in the estate once everything has been accounted for, these assets will be split equally amongst the residual beneficiaries.

A will may state that the deceased wished that the residual beneficiaries should receive a percentage of the residual estate rather than the residue being split equally. The testator (the person whose will it is) can decide whatever percentage they want to give to whomever they choose.

An example of this would be someone leaving 90% of their residual estate to their child and 10% to their grandchild. Just like the first type of residual beneficiary, a beneficiary receiving a percentage of the residual estate will receive their inheritance last, after everything else has been settled from the estate.

A will may also name a Contingent beneficiary, this is someone who will only inherit under a specific set of circumstances. A contingent beneficiary is often named to prevent the estate from being inherited by someone that the testator did not intend.

An example of this would be a parent stating in their will that their estate should be split equally amongst their 2 children but in the circumstance that one of those children were to predecease their parent, their 50% share should be redirected to the surviving child. This would prevent the parent’s estate from being passed to the beneficiaries of their predeceased child’s estate if they do not wish for them to inherit.


There are 2 common types of legacies or bequests. The first being a Pecuniary beneficiary, this is a beneficiary that is named in the will to receive a specific fixed amount of cash money.  This is normally small amounts to grandchildren, family friends or charities that the testator wanted to gift something to but did not want them to receive a share. A pecuniary beneficiary will receive their share after the estate’s expenses have been settled but before the residual beneficiaries.

A pecuniary bequest will be prioritised over a residual beneficiary but not over the estates expenses and liabilities. If there is only a small amount left in the pecuniary bequests these bequests will be paid first before the types of beneficiaries, the residual beneficiaries will only receive an inheritance if there is anything left.  If there is nothing left in the estate once all of the expenses and liabilities have been settled then the pecuniary bequests will not be able to be paid.

The second type of legacy is a Specific bequest, this is when a specifically named item or possession is left under the terms of the will to a specifically named beneficiary. This can be something like small and sentimental like jewellery or photographs but can also be something as big as property.

The type of item or possession will decide on when it can be distributed to the beneficiary. Small items of sentimental value rather than monetary can be distributed under the executors discretion however high value items for example valuable pieces of art, antique collections, boats etc. should be held onto and protected by the executor until they can be accounted for under probate. You can get a better guide on what kind of high value items HRMC are looking for from the IHT407 form. Common sense and reasonable judgement should be applied when deciding when and how these types of bequests are distributed.

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