What is 'Heir'

An heir is a person who is legally entitled to inherit some or all of the estate of another person who has died without legal will and testament. If a person dies intestate, without a valid will, their heir receives property according to the laws of the state in which the property is probated.

The rules of descent and distribution determine to whom property transfers when a person dies without a will. The heirs who inherit the property are typically children, descendants or other close relatives of the decedent. Spouses are usually not legally considered an heir unless mentioned in a will, as they are entitled to properties via marital or community property laws.


When there is more than one heir with the same relation to the deceased, such as two children, they will typically share equally in the estate. For example, if the father of two children dies intestate and there are no other living relatives, each of the two children who become heirs to the estate  will receive property equal to half of the estate.

The part of a deceased person's estate that is given to an heir is known as an inheritance. This can involve cash, stocks, bonds, real estate and other personal property such as automobiles, furniture and jewelry.

There are many specific types of heir, such an heir apparent, the person supposed or expected to receive an inheritance; a presumptive heir, someone who'd get an inheritance unless a child was born to the property owner first; adoptive heir, a legally adopted child who has the same rights as natural child of the parents; a collateral heir, a relative who isn't a direct descendant but is a family member.

Heir versus beneficiary

While heir refers, legally, to a person who receives the property of another person who has died intestate, the term heir, in common parlance, is often used to describe those inheriting property as designated by a will.

The proper term for this is a beneficiary – someone who is entitled to property left by will, trust, insurance policy or some other arrangement. 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 (he or she would not be the recipient of property if left intestate because he or she is not a child or direct relative); however, the friend is a beneficiary as designated through the deceased person's will or other arrangement. A female heir is often referred to as an heiress, particularly if the inheritance involves substantial wealth.

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