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.

Next of Kin vs. Will vs. Spouse

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 will usually takes precedence over next-of-kin inheritance rights, and 401(k)s and IRAs go directly to the beneficiaries designated by the deceased, regardless of what the will says.

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 inheritance 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, that 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.

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 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 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.

Insurance and Retirement Assets

The recipient(s) of proceeds from a decedent's life insurance policy—or the balance from their retirement accounts—are designated in a different way than with other assets. Even if there's a will that includes these instruments, including 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), the proceeds from them go to the beneficiaries listed by the decedent on these policies themselves, regardless of what the will states. By law, the primary beneficiary for these assets has to be the decedent's 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 (RMDs) based on the decedent's age. A surviving spouse under the age of 70½ , however, would not need to make RMDs, until he or she reaches that age.

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.