In the United States, when a person dies without a will state statute dictates who qualifies as an “heir-at-law” to the estate. Heirs-at-law are generally individuals who fall into certain classes of relatives based upon the family structure of the deceased.
It’s difficult to summarize certain concepts in a short tip and readers are encouraged to become familiar with the laws regarding intestate succession in the area and time period in which their ancestor lived, but here are some generalities that are typically true–in the absence of a valid will and testament:
- if you know one heir-at-law is a descendant of the deceased, then other heirs-at-law (except for a potential spouse) are also descendants of the deceased;
- if you know that an heir-at-law is a cousin of the deceased then other heirs-at-law are not children of the deceased.
Keep in mind that heirs-at-law are individuals who would inherit property from a deceased individual in the absence of a will. A deceased person can leave a valid last will and testament (or other valid legal documents) naming individuals as their legatees or beneficiaries. Legatees and beneficiaries do not have to be related to the deceased. An heir-at-law (sometimes styled as just an “heir”) is someone who can entitled to inherit property from a decedent when that decedent dies without leaving any valid legal documents indicating who is to receive that property.