The belongings left behind after a person dies make up his “estate.” The local probate court assumes temporary possession of the deceased's estate. It uses the funds left behind to pay off any outstanding debts the deceased, known as the decedent, owed before remitting the remaining funds to the decedent's heirs. Should a person die without heirs, the state determines how best to distribute his assets.
An individual who lacks heirs is generally aware of this fact prior to her death. If the decedent prepared a will, the will stipulates who should inherit her assets. A beneficiary does not have to be a family member – or even a person – to qualify as an heir. An individual has the right to include a provision in his will requesting that the will's executor donate his assets to a specific charity or program. Individuals can even designate pets as heirs to their estate.
Should an individual die intestate, or without leaving a will, and without having any heirs, the government in the decedent's state of residence will generally claim the money. How the state government distributes the money varies depending on the state. Maryland, for example, directs unclaimed estate funds to the state Board of Education unless the decedent was receiving medical care under the Maryland Medical Assistance Program when she died. If the decedent benefited from that particular program, all proceeds from her estate go to the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
An individual not only has the right to determine who inherits his money after his death, but he can also stipulate who should not inherit his money. If the decedent has only one family member, but stipulates in his will that the court must not distribute any assets to that individual, the court considers the decedent as dying without an heir. Family members excluded from a will have the right to contest the will in court. State laws vary regarding the grounds under which family members can contest a will, but an individual can generally lodge a complaint with the court if she believes that the deceased was mentally incompetent or was under pressure from other individuals when he created the will. Family members can also contest wills they believe are fraudulent. Should the individual succeed, she will become an heir to the estate even if the decedent had no heirs when he died.
If no will exists or the decedent had no immediate family and did not name any heirs in her will, relatives outside her immediate family, such as parents, nieces, nephews or cousins, can make a claim against her estate. In the absence of close relatives, the will's executor will notify distant relatives, such as second or third cousins, of their rights to lay claim to the estate. According to the Association of American Law Schools, most states treat stepchildren differently than other surviving relatives. Although a stepchild can inherit an estate, he typically only does so if there are no other surviving relatives. A distant relative, for example, would have a stronger claim on the estate than a stepchild, who is not biologically related to the decedent.
Each state has a statute of limitations dictating how long an individual has to make a claim on a deceased person's estate. The statute of limitations for estate claims in Texas, for example, is four years. Any relative who wishes to claim an inheritance from the estate must do so within the designated time period in her state of residence. Once the time period expires, any potential heirs who failed to file a claim with the probate court lose the right to do so.