What is 'Laughing Heir'

A laughing heir is a distant relative who has inheritance rights even though they may not have a close, personal relationship with the deceased person whose estate is being settled.

BREAKING DOWN 'Laughing Heir'

A laughing heir may not be aware he is entitled tot an inheritance until he is notified by an attorney or court representative.

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 or children. Under common law, this process of investigating the familial hierarchy can extend as far back as it can be traced, until legitimate legal heirs can be located. In some cases, people may be identified as heirs even though they have never even heard of the decedent, and had no relationship or interaction with them whatsoever. The news that they may inherit a portion of a distant relative’s estate usually comes as a surprise to the laughing heir.

This notion of being contacted out of the blue and being told you are the long-lost heir of some distant relative and have claim to their estate is probably something many people have dreamed about, although it will never actually happen to most people.

Laughing Heirs and Estate Planning

Folklore claims that laughing heirs are so named because they are do distantly related and removed from a close connection to the deceased that they feel no necessity to grieve or mourn. Instead, they can simply collect their windfall and “laugh all the way to the bank.”

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.

And of course it is always important, for many reasons, to have a detailed and legally executed will that specifically outlines exactly what your wishes are, particularly involving what you want to happen to your property and other belongings of value. It is a good idea to enlist the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, who can advise you on many important aspects of creating your will and making arrangements for your estate.

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