The hierarchy of heirs is determined by laws that govern inheritance in each state. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code and have based their inheritance laws on its recommendations. The Uniform Probate Code provides rules concerning who is entitled to inherit a deceased relative's property/estate if no last will and testament was executed. Although laws may vary somewhat by state, typically the hierarchy of heirs is intended to divide the estate fairly among surviving family members.
Last Will and Testament
Although individuals who receive part of an estate according to a last will and testament are called "beneficiaries" rather than "heirs," there is still a hierarchy or heirs if a will was executed. A hierarchy of heirs applies to a last will and testament in that surviving spouses are entitled by law to a share of their deceased spouse's estate. A provision in a will that attempts to disinherit a spouse may be declared invalid, unless the couple had a prenuptial agreement stating that the surviving spouse agreed to forfeit her share. Absent a prenuptial agreement, a surviving spouse typically has a statutory right to a portion of her deceased spouse's assets.
Every state has laws that provide a hierarchy of heirs. These laws -- known as laws of intestate succession -- exist to give guidelines for how to divide an estate when a person passes away without a will; passing away without a will is referred to as dying "intestate." Laws of intestate succession also serve to provide a hierarchy of heirs where a person made a will, but the will was declared invalid.
Although each state has its own individual laws of intestate succession, there are common provisions. In the hierarchy of heirs, a surviving spouse is usually entitled to inherit a share of the marital estate. If there is no surviving spouse, children are typically next in line. Furthermore, children often inherit a parent's estate in equal shares. If there is no surviving spouse or surviving children, grandchildren are typically next in the hierarchy of heirs.
Relatives who do not descend directly from a deceased person are known as collateral heirs. For instance, collateral heirs may include parents, grandparents, siblings and siblings' children. Often when a person passes away and leaves no spouse, children or grandchildren, his parents are next in the hierarchy; if there are no living parents, his estate may pass to his sisters and brothers.