Who Is An Heir?

State statute defines who qualifies as the legal heir of someone who has died. While we can’t go into all possible scenarios in a short tip, generally the first heirs are a surviving spouse and any children or descendants. In the absence of those individuals, the qualifying heirs typically come from “further up the family tree,” starting with parents of the deceased and siblings of the deceased–or their descendants.

State statue will dictate the specifics of who qualifies as an heir, which heirs have higher priority, and how far up the family tree the court has to look.

Heirs have an interest in the estate, but a valid will, legally admitted to probate can direct that property be given to legal heirs, some legal heirs, or other individuals entirely. Individuals who are given real or personal property in a will are generally legally referred to as legatees, beneficiaries, or some other term. But not heirs. Heirs have a legal interest in the estate based upon their relationship to the deceased. That interest may end up being moot if a valid will gives the estate to someone else.

Generally speaking, if A dies with no will and B, C, D, E, and F are listed in legal documents as heirs of A and B is known to be a child of A, then C, D, E, and F are most likely other children of A or descendants of other children of A. There are some exceptions.

Heirs can be legatees or beneficiaries of a will. Legatees or beneficiaries of a will do not have to be heirs. For example if someone dies and leaves their home and other property in their will to the neighbors. The deceased person’s siblings are still their heirs, but their neighbors are the legatees/beneficiaries of the estate.

If someone is referred to as an heir or heir-at-law of someone else in a probate document, determine what the current probate law was at the time of the person’s death. Pay attention to everyone who is listed as an heir–not just the one person in whom you are really interested. Also try and determine what the family structure was of the deceased person to try and get a fix on what the relationship actually was at the time.