The term "heir apparent" is sometimes used to signify the person chosen to succeed the boss in a business, but this distorts the legal meaning. An heir is a person who inherits property after a death if the decedent did not leave a will. In all states, surviving spouses and children top the list.
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Making a Will
If you make a will, you get to determine who will inherit your property when you die. In the United States, you can generally leave your property to any person or institution of your choosing. Those inheriting under your will are termed beneficiaries or devisees.
Dying Without a Will
If you die without a will, state laws on intestate succession determine who inherits your property. Although the laws differ among jurisdictions, a surviving spouse generally takes all or part of the estate and the decedent's children are next in line. Those inheriting under the intestate succession laws are termed heirs.
Probating an Estate
In most cases, an estate that passes by intestate succession goes through probate, a process of administering the estate that is supervised by the courts. The court appoints an administrator who locates assets, pays the decedent's bills and ultimately distributes the property among heirs.