What Is an Heir?

An heir is defined as an individual who is legally entitled to inherit some or all of the estate of another person who dies intestate, which means the deceased person failed to establish a legal last will and testament during their living years. In such a scenario, the heir receives property according to the laws of the state in which the property is probated.

Heirs who inherit property are typically children, descendants, or other close relatives of the decedent. Spouses typically are not legally considered to be heirs, as they are instead entitled to properties via marital or community property laws.

Key Takeaways

  • An heir is a person who is legally entitled to collect an inheritance when a deceased person did not formalize a last will and testament.
  • Generally speaking, heirs who inherit the property are children, descendants, or other close relatives of the decedent. 
  • Legally speaking, heirs differ from beneficiaries, who are designated by a will or other written documents, as the intended recipient of a decedent's assets.
  • The portion of a deceased person's estate that's bequeathed to an heir is known as an inheritance.
  • When an individual dies without a will, it is known as intestate, and a probate court determines how the assets are distributed.

Understanding Heir

When there is more than one heir with the same relationship to the deceased, such as the case when there are two siblings, those individuals typically divvy up the estate equally. The portion of a deceased person's estate that's bequeathed to an heir is known as an inheritance. This can involve cash, stocks, bonds, real estate, and other personal property such as automobiles, furniture, antiques, artwork, and jewelry.

There are many specific types of heirs, including the following:

  • An heir apparent: This describes a person who is widely assumed to receive the inheritance.
  • A presumptive heir: This describes a person who under present circumstances, would be considered to be an heir, but whose right of inheritance may be defeated by the contingency of a more recently-born individual.
  • Adoptive heir: This refers to a legally adopted child who has the same rights as the biological children of the parents.
  • A collateral heir: This describes a relative who isn't a direct descendant, but is nevertheless a family member.

Special Considerations

When an individual dies without a will, it is known as intestate. It can also refer to a situation when the will is considered to be invalid. The manner in which the deceased's assets will be distributed in intestacy will be decided by a probate court.

When a person dies without a will a court administrator will oversee the deceased's estate. They will gather all assets, pay off any liabilities, and distribute the remaining assets to the individuals considered to be the beneficiaries of the deceased; the heirs-at-law. The probate process is determined by state law.

The remaining assets are passed to the beneficiaries via intestate succession, determining the hierarchy of how the assets will be given. The intestate succession starts with the deceased's spouse, then the children, and then the grandchildren. If no living family or heirs-at-law can be located, the assets will go to the state.

Heir vs. Beneficiary

While the term "heir" legally refers to a person who receives the property of an individual who died intestate, in common parlance, the word "heir" is often used to describe those inheriting property, as designated by a will. However, strictly speaking, this usage of the word is factually inaccurate, as the proper term for such an individual is a "beneficiary," which legally defines an individual who is entitled to collect the property, as prescribed by a will, trust, insurance policy, or another binding arrangement.

Traditionally speaking, Jewish, Christian, and Islamic laws each have their own sets of customs when it comes to heirs.

Not all heirs are beneficiaries, such as the case with an estranged adult child who is intentionally left out of a will. Likewise, not all beneficiaries are heirs. For example, a person can designate a friend or companion to receive property. In this case, the friend is not an heir, because he would not be the recipient of property if left intestate, because he is not a child or direct relative of the decedent. However, that friend can accurately be called a beneficiary, as designated through the deceased person's will or another arrangement. A female heir is often referred to as an heiress, particularly if the inheritance involves substantial wealth.

Examples of Heir

Rockefeller Family

The Rockefeller family is one of the most famous families in the world. The wealth was accumulated by John D. Rockefeller through his business in the oil industry. Though he gave a significant portion of his wealth to charity, his heirs were his two surviving children at the time of his death: Alta Rockefeller and John D. Rockefeller Jr.

At the time of his death, in today's dollars, John D. Rockefeller's net worth was $340 billion.

Both children during and after Rockefeller's lifetime received a significant portion of his wealth as his heirs; wealth that has continued to be passed down to family members. Though technically a beneficiary, being the only son of Rockefeller, Jr. took over the family office and joined the family businesses, considered to be the "heir" to Rockefeller.

Heir to the British Throne

The British line of succession is hereditary and is passed down via bloodline from the monarch to their eldest living son. If there is no son, then the line of succession goes to the eldest living daughter.

The current monarch is Queen Elizabeth II. Her father, George VI, had no sons, and, therefore, Elizabeth being the eldest daughter, inherited the throne. The current heir to the British throne is Queen Elizabeth's eldest son, Prince Charles. Following Charles, the heir to the throne is his eldest son, Prince William. After Prince William, the heir to the throne is his eldest son, Prince George.

The Bottom Line

An heir is someone who is entitled to the estate of a recently deceased person, most often when the deceased does not leave a will designating a beneficiary. An heir is often the child of an individual. The term "heir" has commonly been associated with lines of succession, particularly in royal families, however, the term can also simply refer to any individual who will assume the estate of another individual. This can be a child, grandchild, nephew, niece, or sibling.