Heir: Definition, examples and more

You’ve probably heard the term “heir” before. And you probably have a pretty good idea of what it means. But did you know that in legal terms, “heir” has a specific definition? And that, despite their similarities, an heir is different from a beneficiary?

Read on to learn about what exactly an heir is, how it differs from a beneficiary, the different types of heirs and much more. 

Key takeaways

  • An heir is someone who’s legally entitled to inherit assets from a deceased person’s estate if the deceased passes away without a will or trust in place.

  • Unlike an heir, a beneficiary is specifically designated in a will to receive assets from a deceased person.

  • There are different types of heirs.

  • An heir doesn’t have to be a blood relative to the deceased person.

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What is an heir?

An heir is someone who’s legally entitled to inherit assets from a deceased person’s estate if the deceased—legally called the “decedent”—passes away without a will or trust in place. This is known as “dying intestate.”

What is intestate succession?

When someone dies intestate, “intestate succession” takes place, and a special court—called a probate court—uses state law to identify heirs and oversee the distribution of the decedent’s assets.

Assets are commonly distributed in this order of succession:

  1. Surviving spouse or domestic partner

  2. Surviving children if there’s no living spouse or domestic partner

  3. Next closest relatives if there are no living children 

  4. State government if no heirs can be found

The federal government may impose an estate tax on assets before they’re distributed to heirs. You might want to read the IRS rules on whether the sale of inherited property is taxable.

And a few state governments may impose an inheritance tax on assets after an heir receives them. But that depends on the size of the inheritance and the heir’s relationship to the decedent.

Heir vs. beneficiary vs. distributee

While they’re similar, an heir and a beneficiary aren’t exactly the same thing.

Remember: An heir is someone who’s legally entitled to inherit assets from a decedent when there’s no will or trust in place. A beneficiary, on the other hand, is a person or organization that’s specifically designated in a will to receive assets from a decedent.

Another term you might come across is “distributee.” A distributee is someone who inherits property from an estate. So once an heir or beneficiary receives an inheritance, they become a distributee.

Types of heirs, explained

Different types of heirs may have different inheritance rights, depending on their relationship with the decedent.

Heir apparent

Heirs apparent are immediate family members who are first in line to receive a decedent’s assets—usually a surviving spouse or the decedent’s children.

Heirs apparent are practically guaranteed a share of the estate except in certain circumstances—like if they’ve been excluded in the decedent’s will.

Presumptive heir

Presumptive heirs may appear to be first in line now, but that could change. For example, a stepchild from a first marriage could lose their share to a biological child from a second marriage.

Collateral heir

Collateral heirs are blood relatives who aren’t direct descendants of the decedent but come from a common ancestor. Examples are siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles.

Lineal heir

Lineal heirs are direct descendants of one’s bloodline. Sometimes called “issues” or “heirs of the body,” lineal descendants include children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on.

Adoptive heir

Adoptive heirs are adopted children, who generally have the same rights as biological children.

Heir FAQ

Here are the answers to some frequently asked questions about heirs:

An heir is a person who’s legally entitled to all or some of a decedent’s estate when the decedent dies intestate. State law determines who qualifies as an heir, and a probate court identifies the heirs and oversees the distribution of the decedent’s assets.

No, heirs do not have to be a blood relative to the decedent. For example, an heir could be an adopted child or stepchild.

Yes, heirs can inherit debt.

A decedent’s debts are generally paid off by their estate before any remaining assets are distributed to heirs. And as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) explains, “If there was no co-signer, joint account holder, or other exception, only the estate of the deceased person owes the debt.” But, according to the CFPB, an heir may be responsible for the decedent’s debt if the heir is, for example:

  • The co-signer with the decedent on a loan with outstanding debt
  • The joint owner on a credit card with the decedent
  • The surviving spouse or domestic partner in a community property state—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin—“that requires surviving spouses to use jointly-held property to pay debts of a deceased spouse”

Heirs’ property refers to property like a family home or land that’s passed down from generation to generation without a will.

Heirs’ property can be complicated and problematic. That’s because when a property has multiple heirs, it isn’t divided equally between the heirs. Instead, the heirs are “tenants in common” and each heir becomes an owner of the property—meaning that all the heirs have to agree on what to do with the property.

And if the property passes down through multiple generations without a will, the number of heirs continues to increase. This can lead to complex legal issues that could be avoided with estate planning, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Heirs in a nutshell

Heirs are legally entitled to inherit assets from a decedent’s estate if the decedent dies intestate. And when someone dies intestate—meaning without a will or trust in place—then a probate court uses state law to identify heirs and oversee the distribution of the decedent’s assets.

But by estate planning, a person can make sure that upon their death, specific assets go to specific people or organizations. And that can make it easier to handle financial matters after a death in the family.

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