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An heir is a person (normally one of your relatives) who is entitled to receive your property after you have passed away. This differs quite significantly from a beneficiary who is a person named in your will to receive an item of property after you die.

Who can and cannot be your heir is often set at a state level. If you die without creating a will and leave your property “intestate” then it is your heirs who will be legally nominated to receive your estate. This can also sometimes be the case for any property that is not identified in your will.

This article examines who an heir can be and how they might receive an inheritance from you if you die without properly planning your estate.

Who Can Be Your Heir?

State laws normally decide how to determine an heir and who will inherit your estate if you don’t prepare a last will and testament. Your heir presumptive in this case could be one of the following:

  • Your spouse
  • Your children
  • Grandchildren
  • Collateral heirs: your parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, etc
  • Distant family members that can be traced

Intestate inheritance usually works on this hierarchical scale, however, this will depend on your state of residence. Heirs that can be identified will also stipulate how your property is divided **between your surviving family.

It is important to consider your state law when deciding whether to put any estate planning documents into effect. Failure to do so could cause legal complications for the people that you wish to leave your property to.

Additionally, in some states, where no living relatives can be identified, a probate court may run a notice for any surviving family to come forward. If this proves unsuccessful and absolutely no relatives can be found, the estate will simply become the property of the state instead.

Who Cannot Be Your Heir?

Whilst your heirs could be one of many different people depending on your state of residence and circumstances. There are a number of people who will not usually be considered eligible to be your heir. These include:

  • Unmarried partners
  • Close friends
  • Stepchildren
  • Divorced spouses
  • In-laws
  • Foster children
  • Charities

How to Avoid Leaving Your Estate Intestate

In order to make sure that your family and friends receive the property you wish to leave to them, it is important to plan your estate accordingly. To pass property to beneficiaries you can either leave it to them via a will or through a trust.

These essential legal documents not only give a clear path of succession for your estate, they also allow you to divide your property in any way you choose without state laws deciding for you by default.

You are also not limited by the definitions of who and who is not an heir. Wills and trusts let you name anyone to be a beneficiary of your choice, as long as it follows the usual rules necessary for these documents to be legally valid.