In common usage, an heir is a person who is next-in-line to receive something of value, whether it’s a title, office or the throne of the kingdom. The term also describes someone legally eligible to receive tangible legacy in the form of money or land from a deceased ancestor, such as an inheritance. The meaning of direct heir, however, is more narrowly defined and is different from other kinds of heirs.
Origin of Meaning
The definition of direct heir is a modified version of “heirs of the body,” a phrase that originates from English law. It refers to a specific order or rank of natural kinship to which property may pass, including titles of nobility. It literally means born of the body of the original owner of the property, namely a mother or father. A direct heir, as the title suggests, is also in direct line of the decedent, but the lineage can go in either direction -- above or below. In other words, a direct heir may be a child or a parent of the decedent.
Another title sometimes used in place of direct heir is lineal heir, which also refers to a person in the direct bloodline above or below the decedent. In keeping with the meaning of a direct heir, the range of a lineal heir also extends to children, parents, grandchildren and grandparents.
Comparison to Other Heirs
Other terms used to describe heirs may sound like they mean the same thing as direct heir but really mean something quite different. For example, the legal definition of “next of kin” is the closest blood relative or relatives to the decedent, including a living spouse and others eligible to inherit by the laws of descent, such as children. This distinction becomes significant if a person dies without a will and there is no surviving spouse. While heirs may inherit the real property of the decedent, the next of kin may be able to take possession of the decedent’s personal property by filing a claim against the estate with the probate court. Other terms used to describe non-direct heirs entitled to make similar claims, such as cousins, nieces and nephews, include collateral heirs and heirs-at-law. Whether or not stepchildren are considered next of kin depends on the jurisdiction.
Reference to Children
In some jurisdictions, the meaning of direct heir as it relates to offspring includes children that are not of direct lineage. For example, in Pennsylvania, where the term ‘lineal heir” is used, children of a decedent include adopted children and stepchildren. In addition, natural children remain direct heirs even if other people have adopted them. In contrast, Oklahoma has adopted the term "qualifying heir" in its tax code to include lineal heirs as well as adopted children and descendants of adopted children.