Difference Between Heir & Legatee

By Anna Assad

You may hear the terms "heir" and "legatee" used interchangeably, but the words have two different legal meanings. An heir inherits the estate of a person who died by relationship, descent, will or legal process wheras a legatee is any entity or person who received an inheritance from a will.


A person's blood relatives are usually his heirs, as well as his surviving spouse and adopted children. Heirs include children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. If someone dies without leaving a will, state intestacy laws decide the inheritance order and the size of the shares. Although intestacy laws differ by state, spouses and children usually inherit first. For example, in South Carolina, a surviving spouse and child split a deceased person's estate equally. If the deceased didn't have children or a surviving spouse, his living parents inherit next.


A legatee may not be related to the person leaving her an item under his will. For example, Bob's will leaves a car to his friend, Carol. Carol isn't his heir, as she's not married to Bob or related to him by blood or adoption, but she is his legatee because she received an item from him in his will. A legatee may be a business, charitable organization or other agency; some states refer to a legatee as a "devisee."

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Heir Considerations

The blood relatives of a person's predeceased spouse or his stepchildren may be the heirs to his estate if he dies without leaving a will, depending on state law. This occurs if he doesn't have any other relatives to inherit from him. For example, in California, the parents of a predeceased spouse inherit from the estate of a deceased son-in-law if he has no surviving relatives or stepchildren. The state may take a person's estate if he doesn't have any heirs under the state's intestacy laws. For example, the state takes the estate of a person who died intestate with no surviving family or stepchildren in South Carolina.


If a deceased person created a trust in his will, the trust beneficiaries aren't legatees even though they're inheriting through the trust. The legatee is the trust itself. The deceased person's heirs -- such as his children -- may be then be beneficiaries of the trust.

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Who Is Legally the Next of Kin?


Related articles

The Widow's Legal Rights in South Carolina

South Carolina law provides a surviving spouse with the right to inherit from her deceased spouse's estate. An estate includes all property the decedent acquired during his lifetime. If a decedent had a will, the widow receives any bequest from the will. If there is a will, but the spouse is not included, she will still receive an inheritance in accordance with South Carolina's "elective share" laws. If a decedent dies without a will, the widow will inherit based on South Carolina's laws of intestate succession.

Intestacy Rules in Colorado

Colorado's intestacy rules are similar to the rules found in other states but don't provide for inheritances by remote relatives, such as distant cousins. Colorado's laws allow inheritances by a birth parent who adopted out the deceased person or any birth children the deceased person put up for adoption, but only to prevent the estate from going to Colorado because of a lack of heirs. State laws set the inheritance rules for the estate of a person who died intestate; however, these rules don't take the financial needs of his heirs into consideration.

Legal Rights of the Family After a Death

When a loved one dies, settling his estate can seem like a daunting task. Those left behind may not know what rights they have as a beneficiary or heir of an estate. The legal rights of family members depend largely on whether the decedent had an estate plan in place. Most states have a probate court where a beneficiary or heir can enforce his legal rights.

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