What Is an Heir?

Heirs Explained in Less Than 5 Minutes

Definition

An heir is a person who is set to inherit assets when a relative dies.

Person in purple tank top embracing child in their arms
Photo:

FG Trade / Getty Images

How the Designation of an Heir Works

An heir is a person who is eligible to inherit assets when a relative dies. Typically, heirs are blood relatives of the deceased who inherit the decedent’s (person who passes away) estate when they die. Spouses, children, and grandchildren can all fall under the category of heirs.

If no traditional heirs exist, then the assets can potentially be transferred to what are known as "collateral heirs" of the deceased, like siblings next-of-kin relatives like nieces and nephews.

When a person dies, all potential heirs are notified, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they are entitled to assets. If the decedent had a will, the executor of the will is in charge of distributing those assets. After all potential heirs are identified and notified, a probate court decides who will receive the designated assets.

Note

Direct descendants, like children, are sometimes referred to as lineal heirs in formal documentation.

When someone dies intestate, a probate court is usually responsible for determining who the heirs of the estate are. The exact rules behind the distribution of assets and the settlement of the estate—often called "intestate succession"—vary by state.

To identify heirs, some states require that the probate court run a search for relatives or place an ad in the local newspaper. If it’s found that a decedent has no heirs, property and assets are transferred to the state in which they are probated.

In cases where an estate is not handled by a probate court, and property has been passed down for generations, descendants will sometimes share property, referred to as "heirs" property. Heirs property is said to have a "cloudy" title, meaning it cannot be sold, mortgaged, or even renovated until there is a clear title or decision about who is entitled to the property.

When someone dies intestate, heirs can apply to execute the estate, or distribute the assets to the rightful individuals. In New Jersey, for example, potential administrators take priority depending on their relationship to the deceased, in the order of: spouse or domestic partner, adult children, guardian of minor, decedent’s parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and stepchildren.

Note

Inheritances are subject to tax in many states, and rates vary depending on the inheritor’s relationship to the deceased. For example, in Pennsylvania, the tax rate is 4.5% for direct descendants, 12% for siblings, and 15% for other heirs. Some states, on the other hand, do not impose estate or inheritance taxes.

Example of an Heir

An example of heirs can be seen in the succession of the British Royal family tree. The line of succession from Queen Elizabeth II and Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, passes to 24 individuals, starting with son Charles, Prince of Wales; and then William, Duke of Cambridge. While in this case, the succession of the throne is regulated by parliamentary statute as well as descent, it is still a viable example for understanding how one can be an heir.

Heirs vs. Beneficiaries

While heirs are typically blood relatives of a decedent who have a right to inherit property, beneficiaries are, generally speaking, people who inherit based on a will. Beneficiaries can be individuals, or even entities such as charities.

All heirs are not necessarily beneficiaries, as seen in the case of an adult child being purposely left out of a will, though all potential heirs are usually identified and notified when a descendant dies.

Note

A person can designate a close friend as a beneficiary in their will or trust, though this person would not be considered an heir since there is no direct family relation.

Types of Heirs

Heirs are any individuals entitled under the statutes of intestate succession to the property and assets of a decedent. Aside from the surviving spouse, there are many other individuals who can be the determined heir of an estate. Below, find the most commonly used terms to describe the type of heir one can be. 

  • Direct or lineal heir: A person who is the direct line of decedent, such as children, grandchildren, parents, and grandparents.
  • Collateral heir: A person who is not of direct descent, but is related through a collateral line. This can include siblings, nephews, nieces, etc.
  • Forced heir: A person who is under 24 years old and permanently incapable of caring for themselves due to a physical or mental infirmity. 

Minor children can also be heirs, including adopted children, though the court will usually appoint a conservator to manage their assets until they reach the age of majority. It’s important to note that most probate courts define child heirs as biological or adopted children only. Foster children and stepchildren, for example, would not have a legal right to an estate.

Key Takeaways

  • An heir is a person eligible to receive assets and property when a descendant dies.
  • Heirs differ from beneficiaries, who are persons or entities named in an estate to receive property when the estate owner dies.
  • A probate court determines who can legally inherit assets and property.
  • If an estate is not handled by a probate court, heirs may share property (known as heirs property), meaning the property does not have a clear title to be sold.
Was this page helpful?
Sources
The Balance uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Office of the Santa Fe County Probate Judge. "What Is an Heir?"

  2. Cornell Law School Legal Information Institute. "Collateral Descendant."

  3. DeLoach Hofstra and Cavonis, PA. "Meeting the Requirements of the Notice of Administration in Florida."

  4. Cornell law School Legal Information Institute. "Lineal Descendant."

  5. Trust & Will. "The Differences Between Intestate and Probate."

  6. NC State University Extension. "Heirs Property."

  7. Union County New Jersey. "Administration of an Estate."

  8. Beaver County Pennsylvania. "Inheritance Tax."

  9. The Royal Family. "Succession."

  10. IRS. "Treatment of Estate with Charitable Beneficiary: Private Foundation Excise Taxes."

  11. California Courts: The Judicial Branch of California. "Wills, Estates, and Probate."

  12. Securian Financial. "Naming a Beneficiary: What You Need To Know."

  13. Maryland Office of the Register of Wills. "Frequently Used Terms."

  14. Louisiana State Government. "Probate & Succession in Louisiana," Page 4. Accessed Nov. 2, 2021. 

  15. Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy. "Inheritance Equity: Reforming the Inheritance Penalties Facing Children in Nontraditional Families."

Related Articles