Heirs at Law: Estate Planning Definition

"HEIR" spelled out in block lettersWhen planning your estate, it’s important to consider who will inherit your assets after you’re gone. Specifically, it’s important to understand who are your heirs at law – and what that means if you pass away without drafting a last will and testament or a trust. Generally speaking, an heir at law is anyone who would be entitled to inherit from you if you were to die intestate. The rules for defining heirs at law vary by state. It’s important to understand what rights these individuals have when it comes to claiming a share of your estate.

Take advantage of the expertise of a financial advisor as you do your estate planning.

What Is the Meaning of Heirs In Law?

Heirs in law or heirs at law refers to anyone who has a legal right to inherit the assets of another person when that person dies without a last will and testament in place. In simple terms, heirs at law are the people who get your assets if you die intestate.

Every state has laws regarding intestacy. These laws dictate who can inherit your assets if you pass away without a legal will and how much of your estate each person is entitled to receive. If you die intestate and the state is unable to locate your heirs in law, then the state holds on to all of your assets until an heir comes forward.

Who Are Considered Legal Heirs?

Each state defines heirs at law differently. But generally, heirs in law follow a hierarchy starting with people who have the first right of inheritance. They’re followed by the people who have the next right of inheritance and so on.

Here’s what a typical order of inheritance may look like for someone who dies intestate:

  • Spouse
  • Children
  • Parents
  • Siblings
  • Nieces and nephews
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Cousins

This order assumes that the deceased person was married. If they were not married, then the probate court would look to their children next as heirs at law. If they had no children, then their parents would be next in line to inherit. If both of their parents are deceased, then their siblings would be the next heirs at law.

The probate court would continue generation by generation until they’re able to find someone who is the deceased person’s legal heir. But do stepchildren or foster children count as heirs at law? Typically no, unless they were formally adopted by the person who passed away. Common-law spouses and domestic partners may or may not be treated as heirs at law, depending on the laws of the state in which the couple lived.

States follow the intestacy laws for where the deceased person lived when determining heirs at law. It’s possible that some of your assets may be subject to another state’s rules in certain situations, however. If you lived in Massachusetts but owned a vacation home in Florida, for example, that property may be subject to Florida’s probate laws instead.

What Rights Do Heirs at Law Have?

Probate court hearing documents

If someone passes away without a will in place, the heirs at law have some important rights. First, they must be notified of the probate process. Probate is a court-supervised process of validating the will of a deceased person, known as a decedent. It involves identifying the person’s final assets, paying their last debts and distributing their estate’s property to the proper heirs.

The executor is in charge of overseeing this process. You can name an executor in a will but if you have no will, anyone can petition the probate court to become executor, including an heir at law.

Heirs at law also have the right to challenge the terms of a will if the deceased person does leave one behind. This may be necessary if an heir at law is excluded from someone’s will in violation of state probate laws.

So, say that you’re married but you’ve been separated from your spouse for several years. You draft a will leaving the entirety of your estate to your children. Since all state probate laws allow legal spouses the right to inherit, your estranged spouse could file a civil case to claim their share of assets. If the court agrees that they’ve been unfairly excluded from your estate, they can be awarded an amount that’s equivalent to what they’re entitled to under your state’s probate laws.

Who else can challenge a will? The short answer is that any heirs at will with legal standing could choose to do so. Again, if an heir believes they’ve been unfairly excluded they could raise an issue with the will in probate court.

How to Protect Heirs at Law

If you know who your heirs at law are, the easiest way to protect their inheritance rights is to draft a legal will. A will is a legal document that allows you to specify who you want to inherit your assets and which assets you want them to inherit. You can also use a will to name a legal guardian for minor children.

Drafting a will won’t supersede inheritance laws for certain heirs. For example, you can’t use a will to disinherit a spouse but you may be able to disinherit a child or another heir. If you’re ready to make a will you can do so with the help of an estate planning attorney. But it’s also possible to draft a will online using affordable will-making software.

You can take estate planning one step further by establishing a trust. A trust allows you to transfer assets to the control of a trustee who’s charged with managing them on behalf of one or more beneficiaries, according to your wishes. You might consider establishing a trust if you have a larger estate and you want to leave specific instructions for how assets are to be managed. Certain types of trusts may also yield tax benefits for estate planning. Talking to a financial advisor can help you decide if a trust is something you may need.

The Bottom Line

Man signing an estate planning documentHeirs at law is simply another way of referring to the people who could inherit your estate if you were to die without a will. Drafting a will can help your heirs to avoid legal and financial headaches after you pass away. And it’s also important to understand what your rights are as an heir at law if a family member should pass away.

Estate Planning Tips

  • When planning your estate, it’s important to consider any circumstances or situations that might lead to issues for your heirs. For example, say that you remarried after divorce. If your spouse has children, where will they fit into your estate plan alongside your own children? Or if you have a domestic partnership but are not married, how might that affect your partner’s ability to inherit? Talking with an estate planning attorney can help you to smooth the inheritance path for your heirs.
  • Consider talking to a financial advisor as well about the potential tax implications your heirs might face and how to minimize them through estate planning. If you don’t have a financial advisor yet, finding one doesn’t have to be complicated. SmartAsset’s financial advisor matching tool makes it easy to connect with professional advisors in your local area. It takes just a few minutes to get your personalized advisor recommendations online.

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