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Beneficiary Basics

The beneficiaries section is one of the most important in a Last Will and Testament. It details to which individual(s) or organization(s) you would like to gift your financial, property, and sentimental assets.

What is a beneficiary?

The formal definition of a beneficiary is any person who gains an advantage and/or profits from something. In the financial world, a beneficiary typically refers to someone eligible to receive distributions from a trust, will or life insurance policy.

The beneficiary or beneficiaries outlined in your Will are the individuals who you choose to pass on your property or belongings to when you are no longer living.

When and why would I need to name a beneficiary (beneficiaries)?

When making your last Will, you should absolutely name a beneficiary or beneficiaries, regardless of the estimated value of your assets and belongings. This is your chance to distribute assets, cash, or gifts that you would like to pass on to important individuals, charities or organizations in your life.

Specific Gifts Specific gifts, also known as Bequests, are identifiable pieces of property or monetary amounts gifted to individuals upon your passing. These gifts are not included in your residual estate.

Before outlining Specific Gifts in your will, we recommend going around your home and creating a list of memorable items and that you’d like to include in the Will. In doing so, you will avoid having to think through all of the items on the spot, which can be overwhelming.

Some common gifts include:

  • Real estate: For example your primary residence, summer home, cottage, etc.
  • Lump-sum Cash gifts, sometimes intended for a specific purpose such as education
  • Jewelry, art, clothing, cars
  • Heirlooms or mementos,with special meaning (like a book of recipes, or photographs)

Charitable Donations

Charitable Donations, also known as Legacy Gifts, can be given in two ways. First, you can leave a lump-sum cash amount to an organization of your choice. These gifts are given separately when you pass away, and are not included in your residual estate. Instead, or in addition to this method, you may leave a percentage of your residual (remaining) estate to a charity. The organization will receive the cash value of distribution you gave them from your overall estate.

Residual Estate

Finally, after Specific Gifts and Charitable Donations, you should determine who (or which organization) will receive your Residual Estate. Also called the ‘Residue’, this includes all personal property of value not otherwise distributed. It can be thought of as an umbrella that covers your every asset: from real estate you may own, to a gold watch, to an amount of money in a bank account.

Think carefully about the beneficiary, or beneficiaries of your Residual Estate, as this often forms the largest financial component of an estate.

Who can I name as a beneficiary?

Many Canadians choose family members or loved ones; however, a beneficiary can also be a charity or organization that is meaningful to you. Below we have outlined a list of individuals that people commonly choose as their beneficiary or beneficiaries.

Your spouse Married couples often choose each other as the primary beneficiary of each others’ estates, which is a common scenario known as a ‘mirrored will’. Your common-law partner

Similarly, Common-law spouses often choose each other as the primary beneficiaries of their wills. Common law spouses do not automatically have the same property rights under the law as Married couples, so it’s extra important that this desire be recorded.

Your children A child or children, either born to you— including those from a prior marriage or legally adopted by you are eligible to be named as your beneficiary. Although by law, stepchildren are not legally considered “your children,” you can, of course, leave property to anyone you desire including your stepchildren.

A minor You can leave gifts, assets, and property to minors in your will, but keep in mind that the minor will not be able to receive or control any property. Please see the section on Minor Beneficiaries and their Guardians.

A charity or organization Choosing a charity or organization to leave some or all of your assets is another popular option. It will be the responsibility of your executor to carry out your wishes accordingly.

Other beneficiaries Friends, neighbours, loved ones, someone who showed you memorable acts of kindness— anyone important to you can be named a beneficiary in your will.


Provincial law has upheld that testators (Will-makers) may owe a financial obligation to their spouse, children, and other dependents. If you plan on excluding these persons entirely from your Will, you should seek independent legal advice.

How do I name my beneficiaries?

For clarity, always use first, middle and last names for your person-beneficiaries. Also, it is best to use the formal name of any Charity or Foundation you wish to leave funds to, and to include the Charity Registration number (CRA registration number for Canadian charities).

After specific gifts and charitable donations, you can choose one primary beneficiary and leave your entire Residual Estate to them. Or you can divide your remaining estate among multiple beneficiaries in your will leaving them each a portion. You can split your residual estate equally, for example: 50% to each child, or unequally, for example: 30% to your sibling and 70% to your parent.

Can I name zero beneficiaries? What happens then?

Choosing a beneficiary is not legally required in your last will and testament; however, it is not an optional section on the Willful application. By creating a Will, you are helping your family, friends, and executor navigate difficult decisions after you pass away. Dividing your assets is a crucial part of that, and making decisions ahead of time will avoid conflict for them later.

If you do not name any beneficiaries in your will, Provincial law will determine who receives the property in your estate, and it may not be distributed as you would have intended.

Can I leave cash or property to a charity? How would that work?

Willful provides a pre-defined list of popular Canadian registered charities, and causes important to us. If you decide to name another organization or charity, we recommend finding their formal name and business registration number (CRA number) for inclusion in your Will. An excellent resource for finding information on charities, and to donate while still alive is CanadaHelps:

When you pass away, it will be the responsibility of your executor to distribute any assets or gifts to the charity or organization of your choice.

What if one or more of my beneficiaries are minors? Should I leave money to their Guardians too?

You can leave gifts, assets, and property to minors in your will, but keep in mind that the minor will not be able to receive or control any property immediately. Their share will be held in trust by the Estate Trustee until they reach the age of majority, or another age detailed in the Will. Prior to that time, their legal guardian will be able to access funds for the maintenance, care, and education of the minor, at the discretion of the Estate Trustee.

On Willful, you may delay the minors receipt of their inheritance to the age of majority, or twenty-one, or twenty-five.

The Estate Trustee may have duties such as dealing with investments for the minor, collecting debts, paying bills, or distributing funds to their Guardians.

I want to fully exclude a spouse, child, or another dependent from my Will, can I still use Willful?

Yes, you can choose to exclude a spouse, child or another dependent from your Will.

Disinheritance can be triggered by a specific event or strained relationships or estrangement.

Think seriously about this, as you may realize that disinheritance, may not be worth the associated emotional and financial impacts.

We recommend you seek legal advice from an estate lawyer if this is something you’d wish to do as this nuance does stray from a simple and straightforward Will.

What happens if a beneficiary predeceases me?

If one of your beneficiaries dies before you, in the Willful platform you can choose for the estate to go directly to their children, or the estate can be divided among your other named beneficiaries.

If you only name one beneficiary and they die before you, the court may have to decide how the asset or assets are distributed with the assistance of your Executor and trustee. Splitting the benefit, by designating two or more beneficiaries can reduce this risk. Another option would be to create a Contingent Beneficiary which you can also do in the Willful platform.

What is a Contingent Beneficiary?

A Contingent Beneficiary is a person or charity you designate to receive your estate in case all of your primary beneficiaries are unable to inherit your estate - think of it as the ultimate backup beneficiary.

An example of this would be if you named your spouse and child as your beneficiaries, and the three of you were in an accident and passed away together. In that scenario, your contingent beneficiary would receive the entire estate. But if you passed away while your spouse and child were still alive, they would receive your estate as planned, and the contingent beneficiary would receive nothing.

Life is full of twists and turns and there are a lot of tough scenarios to imagine. Regularly review your estate planning documents to make sure all those who are named are still alive to avoid any future confusion.