What (Who) Is Next of Kin?

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. The next of kin may also have responsibilities during and after their relative's life. They might have to make medical decisions if the person becomes incapacitated or take responsibility for their funeral/burial arrangements and financial affairs after their relative dies.

The term next of kin is sometimes interpreted in a broader sense, to include the spouse or anyone who would receive a portion of the estate by the laws of descent and distribution if there were no will. In this context, next of kin would include a spouse—a person related by the legal marriage tie.

Understanding Next of Kin

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.

A legally and properly executed will covering inheritable property usually takes precedence over next-of-kin inheritance rights. If the deceased person left no will, though, their estate automatically passes to a surviving spouse in nearly all states. If the couple is divorced, postnuptial agreements might have terminated or altered these rights. If a surviving spouse remarries, it generally does not affect their inheritance rights.

In the absence of a surviving spouse, the next of kin inherits the estate. The line of inheritance begins with direct offspring: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and so on. The legal status of stepchildren and children who are adopted 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.

Key Takeaways

  • Next of kin generally refers to a person's closest living blood relative.
  • The specifics of determining next of kin, and inheritance, vary by jurisdiction.
  • A legally and properly executed will covering inheritable property usually takes precedence over next-of-kin inheritance rights.
  • Funds from insurance policies and retirement accounts go to beneficiaries designated by these documents, regardless of next-of-kin relationships or even will bequests.

Jurisdiction Over Next of Kin

The specifics of determining next of kin, and inheritance, vary by jurisdiction. In countries such as the United Kingdom, matters involving inheritance 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 U.S., 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. The legislature of a state has plenary power—complete authority—over the distribution of property within the borders of the state. The deceased's estate becomes state property if no legal heir can be 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.

As the next of kin, you may also 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 can assume paying bills, notify business contacts, and close the account.

Next of Kin and Insurance Policies/Retirement Plans

The recipient(s) of proceeds from a decedent's life insurance policy, or their retirement accounts, like 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 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 he or she signs 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. If the original account owner was under age 70½, for example, a next-of-kin or non-spouse inheritor would have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) based on the decedent's age. If the original account owner was over age 70½, however, the beneficiary has a choice: taking RMDs based on the decedent's age or on their own age. These rules apply primarily to Traditional IRAs or 401(k)s; distributions are mandatory but more flexible for Roth IRAs.

As the next of kin, you may also inherit some of your relative's digital assets and obligations. 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.