DEFINITION of 'Laughing Heir'
A distant relative who has inheritance rights despite not having a close, personal relationship with the decedent. In most jurisdictions, the law requires that the property of a person who passed away without leaving a will be given first to members of the decedent's immediate family, such as a spouse, children, etc. Under common law, this familial hierarchy extends as far back as it can be traced, giving folks who may have never even heard of the decedent - much less known him/her - inheritance rights.
BREAKING DOWN 'Laughing Heir'
Many states have enacted laughing heir statutes that limit the rights of distant family members of decedents who died without a will. In these states, the decedent's estate passes, or escheats, to the state itself, to be disbursed as government officials see fit. In states without laughing heir statutes, distant relatives still have priority over the state to an intestate decedent's belongings.
Therefore, it is important to know whether the state of your residence has any laughing heir statutes when considering the execution of your will, lest you inadvertently leave your benefactors liable to potential lawsuits from distant relatives.