Next of kin refers to a person's closest living blood relative. The next of kin relationship is important in determining inheritance rights if a person dies without a will and has no spouse and/or children. State law in the United States establishes next of kin relationships and inheritance priorities. The deceased's estate becomes state property if no legal heir can be identified.


Next of kin can also be called upon to make medical decisions for a person who has become incapacitated or to make funeral/burial arrangements. The next-of-kin designation also enables the person to carry out other responsibilities. For example, Microsoft provides the next of kin of a deceased subscriber with a DVD of the decedent’s entire Outlook account so the relative can assume paying bills, notify business contacts and close the account.

In countries such as the United Kingdom, matters involving inheritances are handled in accordance with various succession laws. In other countries, next-of-kin laws are in place for settling estates of people who die intestate.

In the U.S., the right of a relative to inherit or receive property by inheritance exists through the operation of laws and legislative action. The legislature of a state has plenary power, or complete authority, over distribution of property within the borders of the state. The state in which real property is located generally has precedence over the laws of other states. With personal property, the law of the state where the decedent resides generally supersedes the laws of other states.

Identifying Next Of Kin

A legally and properly executed will covering inheritable property usually takes precedence over next-of-kin inheritance rights. In the absence of a will, inheritance rights automatically pass to a surviving spouse in nearly all states. If the couple is divorced, postnuptial agreements should have terminated or altered these rights. The subsequent remarriage of a surviving spouse generally does not affect the inheritance rights of that spouse.

In the absence of a surviving spouse, next-of-kin priorities follow a line of descent consisting of the direct offspring of a subject such as a child, grandchild, great-grandchild and so on. The next of kin may also consist of collateral heirs such as brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews of the subject ancestor. The line of inheritance flows downward to offspring before upward to parents and then collaterally to siblings. For example, inheritance rights normally pass to a decedent’s children and grandchildren before the decedent’s parents and to the parents before proceeding collaterally to the decedent’s brothers, sisters and nieces and nephews. The legal status of stepchildren and children who are adopted varies by jurisdiction.

Next of Kin’s Access to Retirement Assets

In the event of death, Retirement plan assets including those in 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRA)s will go to the beneficiaries designated by the the decedent regardless of what is stated in a will. By law, the primary beneficiary has to be the decedents’ spouse. If the spouse is also deceased and there are no other living listed beneficiaries, those assets may flow to the deceased's next of kin depending on state law. 

Certain rules apply to individuals who receive inherited retirement plan assets.

If the original account owner was under age 70½, for example, a next-of-kin or non-spouse inheritor would have to make required minimum distributions (RMD), based on is or her age. A surviving spouse under the age of 70½ , however, would not need to make RMDs, until he or she reaches that age.