What Is a Collateral Heir?

By Ellis Roanhorse

Heirs are individuals who are entitled to inherit a deceased person's property. Many people die having written a will, which describes how they want their property distributed after death. Others die without a will -- or "intestate." State laws provide guidance regarding who receives a deceased person's property in the event the deceased person failed to make a last will and testament. Collateral heirs are a specific class of people who are not direct descendants of a person who passed away.

Heirs are individuals who are entitled to inherit a deceased person's property. Many people die having written a will, which describes how they want their property distributed after death. Others die without a will -- or "intestate." State laws provide guidance regarding who receives a deceased person's property in the event the deceased person failed to make a last will and testament. Collateral heirs are a specific class of people who are not direct descendants of a person who passed away.

Intestate Succession

When a person dies with no will, state laws dictate which relatives receive his property and how much each relative receives. These laws are often referred to as "laws of intestate succession." The term "collateral heir" is commonly used when referring to heirs who stand to receive a portion -- or all -- of a deceased individual's estate according to laws of intestate succession, but who are not direct descendents of the deceased person.

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Surviving Spouses

Technically, surviving spouses are neither heirs nor collateral heirs; however, they are typically entitled to receive a portion -- and sometimes all -- of their deceased spouse's estate. The law varies from state to state; a minority of states are community property states, while a majority are equitable distribution states. In community property states, when one spouse dies without a will, the surviving spouse may receive all property acquired during the marriage and a portion of the deceased spouse's separate property.

Children

When an individual dies without a will, his children are considered heirs and may receive a portion of his estate. Children are not collateral heirs of their deceased parents because they are direct descendents. Grandchildren and great-grandchildren are also direct descendents of their grandparents and parents. When a parent dies having left no surviving spouse and no will, children typically receive the estate in equal shares.

Collateral Heirs

Collateral heirs are a class of relatives who are not direct descendents of a deceased person. For example, the parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews of a deceased person are all collateral heirs because they are not direct descendents of a deceased person. Cousins, aunts and uncles are also collateral heirs. Collateral heirs may share a portion of a deceased individual's estate -- pursuant to laws of intestate succession -- if the deceased individual had no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren.

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The Hierarchy of Heirs

References

Related articles

The Inheritance Hierarchy Without a Will in New York State

A person who dies without leaving a will is said to have died “intestate.” New York courts distribute intestate property according to a statutory scheme of succession and these laws apply only to property located in the state of New York. Laws of other states may apply to real property located outside of New York, even if the decedent had been a legal resident of the state. The intent of New York's intestate succession law is to distribute the estate in the manner in which the decedent likely would have had she left a will; the statutory scheme distributes the decedent's property to the closest surviving relatives first.

Revoking Rights as an Heir

An heir is someone whose relationship to the deceased gives him a legal right to the deceased's property upon her death. While the law establishes certain rights for heirs, those rights can be undermined or even revoked by the deceased's will, a court determination or the heir himself.

Laws on Inheritances

Every state has its own set of unique laws that govern inheritance. These laws, known as "laws of intestate succession," provide guidelines as to the priority of heirs. In other words, these laws explain who is entitled to an inheritance -- and how much they're entitled to receive -- when a relative dies without a will or dies with an invalid will.

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