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.
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.
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 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.