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.