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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Legal Rights of the Family After a Death


Related articles

Marital Estate Rights After Death

When a married person dies, the surviving spouse generally has a right to inherit a portion of the deceased person’s property. How much of the decedent's property a surviving spouse is entitled to receive depends on the probate laws of the state where the decedent lived. While probate law varies by state, as of March 2012, the Uniform Probate Code has been enacted in 17 states. As a result, the UPC is a good starting point for a general discussion regarding marital estate rights. If you have specific questions about the laws of your state, consider consulting with a licensed attorney in your area.

Can an Heir Be Deleted From a Property Inheritance?

When someone leaves a will, he can bequeath his property to anyone he chooses. With the exception of his spouse in some jurisdictions, he can also omit or disinherit anyone he likes. Heirs have far more rights when a loved one dies intestate, or without a will. In this case, a statutory code takes over, determining who inherits his property. Depending on how closely related an heir is to the deceased, it might be impossible to “delete” him.

Estate Law on Heirs

The term "heir apparent" is sometimes used to signify the person chosen to succeed the boss in a business, but this distorts the legal meaning. An heir is a person who inherits property after a death if the decedent did not leave a will. In all states, surviving spouses and children top the list.

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