What Is a Collateral Heir?

By Ellis Roanhorse

Heirs are individuals who are entitled to inherit a deceased person's property. Many people die having written a will, which describes how they want their property distributed after death. Others die without a will -- or "intestate." State laws provide guidance regarding who receives a deceased person's property in the event the deceased person failed to make a last will and testament. Collateral heirs are a specific class of people who are not direct descendants of a person who passed away.

Intestate Succession

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.

Surviving Spouses

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.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan


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

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.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
The Hierarchy of Heirs


Related articles

Inheritance Laws in Alaska

In Alaska, as in other states, when a decedent doesn't make a will, his property and assets must be divided according to the state's inheritance laws. These laws, known as "laws of intestate succession," provide guidelines as to the priority of heirs and what happens to property when there are no heirs.

The California Law When the Deceased Has No Will

If a person dies intestate, or without a will, in California, his estate is subject to California's intestacy laws. Unlike a will, which allows a person to name all those he wants to inherit from his estate, intestacy laws automatically consider his living family such as his spouse, children, parents and siblings.

Arkansas Inheritance Laws

In Arkansas, a resident can make a valid will if he's at least 18 years old and mentally competent. Arkansas law also requires a will to be written and attested by two witnesses. If an Arkansas resident dies without a will, his property passes to his surviving spouse and other heirs according to state law. These laws are called "laws of intestate succession." When someone dies without a will, he is said to have died "intestate."

LegalZoom. Legal help is here. Start Here. Wills. Trusts. Attorney help. Wills & Trusts

Related articles

The Rules of Inheritance

The rules of inheritance are set according to state law. Each state has its own statutes that explain which relatives ...

What If an Heir Dies?

The impact of an heir’s death on the probate process depends a great deal on whether he is also a beneficiary. An heir ...

Probate Laws on the Next of Kin

When someone dies without a will, state laws -- the so-called "laws of intestate succession" -- determine who inherits ...

Laws on Inheritances

Every state has its own set of unique laws that govern inheritance. These laws, known as "laws of intestate ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED