What You Need to Know About an Heir-At-Law
Ideally, all of a decedent’s assets will be accounted for in a will, trust, and/or other estate planning instruments. In many cases, however, people pass away before executing a will, the proper beneficiaries predecease the testator, or other obstacles arise. When someone dies without a will, their estate will go through the probate process, and the venue state’s intestacy laws will kick in. Part of the probate process for a decedent who died intestate is identifying heirs-at-law and taking the appropriate steps with regard to those heirs. Continue reading to learn about heirs-at-law and how they function. Call a qualified forensic genealogist for professional, comprehensive assistance identifying the proper heirs to an estate.
What is an Heir-At-Law?
An heir-at-law is a person who is entitled to inherit part or all of an estate when a person dies without a valid will. Heirs-at-law are also colloquially called “next of kin.” It’s important to identify the heirs-at-law as soon as possible after a death because they have significant legal rights. Heirs-at-law have the right to be notified of the probate process, the right to inherit their share of the estate through intestacy, and even the right to challenge the validity of the will in probate court.
Heirs-at-law are determined according to the state’s intestacy law. State law differs regarding the distance of the relation between the decedent and the putative heir, but the first few steps in the process are typically very similar. Typically, intestacy laws follow these steps:
- The surviving spouse is always the first in line to inherit. In most states, the surviving spouse will split the estate with the decedent’s living children–meaning the spouse receives 50% and the decedent’s living children split the other 50% in equal shares.
- If the decedent has living grandchildren whose parents are deceased, the grandchildren would be next in line, inheriting their parents’ shares split among the grandchildren. Different states have different rules about how the shares would be split among the grandchildren.
- If the decedent has no living spouse, children, or grandchildren, then the estate would pass to the next closest relatives–the deceased’s parents, siblings, grandparents, and others, in accordance with state law.
As the above analysis illustrates, you start with the close relations of the deceased and move out from there. If there are no heirs at a given step in the process, you proceed to the next step. Different states may decide that great-uncles come before second cousins and the like, but all start with spouse, children, and grandchildren, and then move on from there.
Spouses, children, and grandchildren with a deceased parent-heir would all be considered heirs-at-law. If the decedent has no surviving relatives in those categories, the next round of relatives would be heirs-at-law. Heirs-at-law have important legal rights, so to ensure that fairness and justice are served, all putative heirs must be identified as soon as possible during probate.
If you’re an estate administrator in need of experienced assistance identifying and locating missing heirs to an estate and for determination of heirship proceedings, or heir research services in order to satisfy due diligence requirements, contact the thorough and detail-oriented forensic genealogists of Von Langen, LLC at 800-525-7722.