Distinguishing Custom Settings in Apex

In many respects, the Salesforce API treats Hierarchy and List Custom Settings the same way: their schemata are the same, and most, though not all, static methods apply to both types of settings. This works well in the typical use case of calling MyCustomSetting__c.getInstance(). But suppose you’d like to build generic code that operates on settings. How can you tell list from hierarchy settings to handle them appropriately?

Custom Settings are easily identifiable with Schema.DescribeSObjectResult.isCustomSetting(), but there’s no analogue method for custom setting type. Luckily, there’s two critical differences in field behavior on these objects that yield methods of determining which object is which.

  • For a Hierarchy setting, Name is nillable, while it is required for List settings.
  • Inserting a List Custom Setting with a non-null SetupOwnerId results in a FieldIntegrityException.

Hence, a simple way to tell the two apart, given a DescribeSObjectResult:

 public Boolean isHierarchyCustomSetting(Schema.DescribeSObjectResult s) {
    return s.isCustomSetting() && s.fields.getMap().get('Name').getDescribe().isNillable();

 public Boolean isListCustomSetting(Schema.DescribeSObjectResult s) {
    return s.isCustomSetting() && !s.fields.getMap().get('Name').getDescribe().isNillable();

An alternate, but slower, route is to construct an instance with newSobject() and populate the SetupOwnerId field. A (catchable) exception upon insert identifies the class as a List Custom Setting.