Revocable vs Irrevocable Insurance Beneficiary

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Picture of By <span>Matthew Roberts</span>
By Matthew Roberts

Updated on May 30, 2024

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Picture of By <span>Matthew Roberts</span>
By Matthew Roberts

Updated May 30, 2024

Visit author page

3 minute read

Article Contents

Revocable vs Irrevocable Beneficiary: An In-Depth Analysis

Delving into the complexities of life insurance can be challenging. After deciding to invest in life insurance, a key decision in this process is selecting between a revocable and an irrevocable beneficiary. This article seeks to clarify these two options, offering clear insights to assist in making well-informed choices.

What is a Life Insurance Beneficiary?

Life insurance is important if you want to ensure your children, partner, family or business are taken care of when you pass. The person or entity appointed to receive the death benefit following the policyholder’s passing is called a beneficiary. Its role is pivotal, as it determines the direction of the leftover financial legacy. Selecting a beneficiary should be thoughtful, reflecting the policyholder’s intentions and commitments. Here is a summary of the types of beneficiaries you can choose from:

  1. Primary Beneficiary:
    • First in line to receive the death benefit from your life insurance policy.
    • The payout is received upon the policyholder’s death.
  2. Contingent (Secondary) Beneficiary:
    • Named as a backup in the life insurance policy.
    • Receives the benefits if the primary beneficiary predeceases the policyholder.
  3. Multiple Beneficiaries:
    • Option to name several individuals as primary and secondary beneficiaries.
    • Commonly includes spouse and children.
    • Beneficiaries receive a tax-free lump sum to cover expenses like bills, living costs, estate taxes, and funeral expenses.
  4. Charitable Organization as Beneficiary:
    • Policyholders can name a charity to receive the death benefit as a philanthropic gesture. It’s worth mentioning that life insurance premiums are generally not tax deductible in Canada, but if the charity you chose as a beneficiary is registered with Revenue Canada, the premiums can be tax deductible.
  5. Business as Beneficiary:
    • A business can be named a beneficiary, often used in corporate planning.
    • Applicable for key person insurance or buy-sell agreements.
Types of beneficiaries for life insurance

Now that you understand what a beneficiary is, let’s dive a little deeper into the main topic of this article: revocable and irrevocable beneficiaries. Typically, policies default to having revocable beneficiaries, yet there are specific circumstances where designating someone as an irrevocable beneficiary is advisable. 

What is a Revocable Insurance Beneficiary?

This type offers flexibility and complete control over your policy. Policyholders can change or revoke a revocable beneficiary at any time without their consent. It suits those whose personal or financial circumstances may change over time. Secondary and contingent beneficiaries are generally revocable beneficiaries. 

When Should an Insurance Beneficiary Be Revocable?

A revocable beneficiary is ideal for individuals seeking flexibility in their estate planning. Life’s unpredictable nature necessitates a plan that can adapt to changing relationships, financial statuses, or personal priorities. 

What is an Irrevocable Insurance Beneficiary?

Without the beneficiary’s consent, you cannot alter the beneficiary designation or terms of the insurance policy, nor can you cancel it. Consequently, irrevocable beneficiaries possess a more robust claim to the death benefit. An irrevocable beneficiary is typically designated as the primary beneficiary.

When Should an Insurance Beneficiary Be Irrevocable?

Selecting an irrevocable beneficiary demonstrates a commitment to a chosen individual or cause. It is particularly relevant in scenarios requiring guaranteed financial support or fulfilling legal obligations. This choice is often made to ensure financial stability for the beneficiary, reflecting a deliberate and unchangeable decision by the policyholder.

Scenarios for Choosing Revocable vs Irrevocable Beneficiaries

Practical life considerations should influence the choice between a revocable and irrevocable beneficiary. 

Scenario 1: Passing of a Parent in Divorce

For irrevocable beneficiaries, let’s analyze the following situation: if one spouse passes away in a divorce, life insurance can replace lost spousal or child support for their children. An irrevocable beneficiary designation prevents a former spouse from changing the policy beneficiary without consent, protecting against unauthorized alterations.

Scenario 2: Life Insurance Policy is Used as a Loan Collateral

Additionally, when a life insurance policy is used as loan collateral, the lender is often made an irrevocable beneficiary. This ensures their right to the death benefit while allowing the policyholder to access a portion of the benefit as a loan during their lifetime. If the loan is repaid, the lender’s beneficiary status is removed.

Scenario 3: Changing Family Dynamics/Relationships

Revocable beneficiaries might be a better option for other circumstances. For example, family dynamics might change over time if you initially assign your two adult children as revocable beneficiaries, each receiving 50% of your death benefit. Suppose Child 1 becomes more involved in your care than Child 2. You might want to adjust the benefit distribution in Child 1’s favour. However, Child 2 could block this change if they were irrevocable beneficiaries. Keeping beneficiaries revocable allows you to control the payout distribution as circumstances evolve. Or, in business contexts, naming a partner or lender as an irrevocable beneficiary can be a strategic decision to ensure continuity or meet contractual obligations.

The Importance of Regular Insurance Beneficiary Reviews

Reviewing your policy and its beneficiaries regularly and in response to significant life changes is advantageous. Such events might encompass purchasing a new home, getting married or divorced, the birth of a child, or the passing of a family member. This ensures that your life insurance policy remains aligned with your current intentions and life circumstances, ensuring your legacy will be managed as you wish.

The Bottom Line

The decision between a revocable and irrevocable beneficiary is crucial to life insurance management. It requires balancing adaptability and commitment, aligning with the policyholder’s current and future life scenarios. This choice is not merely a personal preference; it is a strategic decision that impacts the beneficiaries’ financial security.

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