What (and Who) Is Next of Kin, and Why Does It Matter?

Next of Kin

Investopedia / Sydney Saporito

What (and Who) Is Next of Kin?

The term next of kin usually refers to a person's closest living relative(s). Individuals who count as next of kin include those with a blood relation, such as children, or those with a legal standing, such as spouses or adopted children. A person's next of kin often takes precedence over others in inheritance cases, especially when a will isn't established.

Key Takeaways

  • Next of kin is defined as a person's closest living relatives through blood or legal relationships.
  • The specifics of determining next of kin, and inheritance, vary by jurisdiction.
  • A legal will covering inheritable property usually takes precedence over the inheritance rights of someone's next of kin.
  • In some cases, the next of kin may be able to inherit someone's digital assets and obligations.
  • Funds from insurance policies and retirement accounts go to beneficiaries designated by these documents, regardless of relationships or will bequests.

Watch Now: What Is the Meaning of Next of Kin?

Understanding Next of Kin

As noted above, next of kin refers to individuals who share a relationship through blood, marriage, or another legal bond, such as adoption. This relationship helps establish who would receive a portion of a person's estate by the laws of descent and distribution if there is no will. In this context, the next of kin is the spouse.

Inheritance rights use the next of kin relationship for anyone who dies without a will and no spouse or children. Surviving individuals may also have responsibilities during and after their relative's life. For example, the next of kin may need to make medical decisions if the person becomes incapacitated, or take responsibility for their funeral arrangements and financial affairs after their relative dies.

Establishing someone's next of kin is also important for law enforcement, medical officials, and other authorities when they need to make notifications about an individual's death, health, or well-being.

A legally and properly executed will that covers inheritable property usually takes precedence over next-of-kin inheritance rights. But if the deceased person left no will, their estate passes to a surviving spouse in nearly all states. If the couple is divorced, postnuptial agreements may terminate or alter these rights. If a surviving spouse remarries, it generally does not affect their inheritance rights.

In the absence of a surviving spouse, the person who is next of kin inherits the estate. The line of inheritance begins with direct offspring, starting with their children, then their grandchildren, followed by any great-grandchildren, and so on.

The legal status of stepchildren and adopted children varies by jurisdiction. If the deceased had no offspring, the line of inheritance moves upward to their parents. If the parents are no longer alive, collateral heirs (brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews) are next in line.

Special Considerations

As next of kin, you may inherit some of your relative's digital assets and obligations. For example, Microsoft provides a deceased subscriber's next of kin with a DVD of the decedent’s entire Outlook account so the relative may assume paying bills, notify business contacts, close the account, and so on.

Jurisdiction Over Next of Kin

The specifics of determining next of kin and inheritance vary by jurisdiction. Matters involving inheritance in certain countries, such as the United Kingdom, are handled in accordance with various succession laws. In other countries, next-of-kin laws are in place for settling the estates of people who die intestate.

In the United States, the right of a relative to inherit or receive property by inheritance exists through the operation of state laws and legislative action. State law establishes next of kin relationships and inheritance priorities.

Identifying a next of kin is less important, at least legally, if the person who died (the "decedent") left a will or is (or was) married.

The legislature of a state has plenary power, or complete authority, over the distribution of property within the state borders. The deceased's estate becomes state property if no legal heir is identified.

What if someone dies in one state and owns assets in another? With personal property, the law of the state where the decedent resides generally supersedes the laws of other states.

Insurance and Retirement Plans

The recipient(s) of proceeds from a decedent's life insurance policy, or their retirement accounts such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRA), are designated in a different way than other bequeathable assets. The funds from these instruments go to the beneficiaries listed by the decedent on these policies or accounts themselves, even if the decedent designated different people in a will.

Next-of-kin status is irrelevant unless the decedent was married and lived in a community property state. If so, by law, the surviving spouse is entitled to an equal portion of any funds earned or accrued during the marriage, unless the spouse had signed a waiver. If the spouse is also deceased, and there are no living listed beneficiaries, those assets may flow to the deceased's next of kin, depending on state law.

Certain other rules apply to individuals who inherit retirement plan assets; however, those rules have been modified recently following the passage of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act in December 2019.

Prior to the passage of the SECURE Act, non-spousal beneficiaries of an inherited IRA were required to commence required minimum distributions if the original account owner had commenced taking their own required minimum distributions (RMDs) prior to their death. If the account owner had not commenced taking their own RMDs, the non-spousal beneficiary was able to wait until they had reached the age to commence taking RMDs to begin taking them.

Prior to the passage of the SECURE Act, non-spousal beneficiaries who inherited an IRA previously were able to stretch out the benefits for their lifetime; however, under the new law, IRA beneficiaries must cash out their inherited retirement account within 10 years. There are certain exceptions, such as for the chronically ill, the disabled, and children under the age of 18.

Why Is Determining Next of Kin Important?

Establishing the next-of-kin relationship is important because it determines inheritance rights when a person dies without a will and there are no surviving relatives, such as a spouse or children.

A person's next-of-kin may also have certain responsibilities during and after a person's life, such as making medical decisions, making funeral arrangements, and assuming control of financial affairs.

How Is Next of Kin Determined?

Determining the next-of-kin and inheritance varies by jurisdiction. In the United Kingdom, inheritance matters are handled as per succession laws. In other countries, the laws about next-of-kin help settle the estates of people who die intestate. The right of someone to inherit or receive property in the U.S. by inheritance exists by way of state laws and legislative action.

Will Next of Kin Automatically Get Life Insurance and IRA Benefits?

In most cases, the next-of-kin status doesn't matter. This means that the proceeds from life insurance policies and retirement accounts are transferred to the beneficiaries named by a decedent even if the decedent designates different people in their will.

This changes if the decedent is married and lives in a community property state. In this case, the surviving spouse is legally entitled to an equal portion of any funds earned or accrued during the marriage, unless the spouse signs a waiver.

The Bottom Line

Next of kin refers to a person's closest living relative, which usually includes individuals with a shared bloodline, such as children or cousins, or those with a legal standing, such as adopted children or a spouse.

In estate planning, next of kin is important in that next of kin typically takes precedence over any other individuals for an inheritance, usually when a will does not exist. Each country and sometimes different jurisdictions within the country have different inheritance rights.

Most often, the spouse inherits the estate. If there is no spouse, then it is usually the children. If there are no children, the next of kin relationship continues to find the closest living blood relative.

Article Sources
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  2. Cornell Law School, Legal Information Institute. "Inheritance."

  3. American Bar Association. "Introduction to Wills."

  4. Microsoft. "Accessing Outlook.com, OneDrive and Other Microsoft Services When Someone Has Died."

  5. Microsoft. "Microsoft's Next of Kin Process - Accessing Emails."

  6. KMPG. "Recent Developments in Europe: International Estate and Succession Planning Trends."

  7. Legislation.Gov.UK. "Intestates' Estates Act 1952."

  8. American Bar Association. "The Probate Process."

  9. U.S. Department of Labor. "FAQs About Retirement Plans and ERISA," Page 8.

  10. Congressional Research Service. "Inherited or 'Stretch' Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) and the SECURE Act."

  11. internal Revenue Service. "Part 25. Special Topics, Chapter 18. Community Property, Section 1. Basic Principles of Community Property Law," Select " (05-03-2023): Community Property States" and " (02-15-2005): When the Character of Property Is Determined."

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