Laws on Receiving an Inheritance

By David Carnes

The general principle of inheritance law is that the maker of a will, known as the testator, is entitled to distribute his property as he sees fit once the estate's debts are paid. Exceptions exist to this principle, however. If a person dies without a will, his property will be distributed according to state law. Under certain circumstances, the estate may be taxed by both federal and state authorities.

Inheritance Rights of Spouses

The inheritance rights of a surviving spouse depend on the state in which the decedent lived. As of 2012, nine states are community property states. Under community property law, property gained by either spouse once married is generally considered community property, half-owned by each spouse. This means that half of the estate belongs to the surviving spouse regardless of the terms of the will. Other states allow spouses to hold title to property in their own names, but grant surviving spouses the right to renounce their inheritance under the will and claim a certain portion of the estate. In many states, for example, the surviving spouse may claim one-third of the testator's estate.

Inheritance Rights of Children

All states, except Louisiana, allow a testator to disinherit his children. However, when a testator's will fails to provide for his children, a probate court, the court with jurisdiction over wills and the administration of estates, often considers the omission to be a mistake, particularly for a child who was born after the will was signed. You may disinherit your children by specifically stating in your will that they are to receive nothing.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

Intestate Succession Laws

State intestate succession laws apply when someone dies without a will or the will is declared invalid by a probate court. Intestate succession specifies the distribution of property in the absence of a will. Although state laws differ, the surviving spouse typically inherits everything if the deceased spouse has no living descendants. If the deceased spouse does have descendants, the surviving spouse may still be entitled to half the estate. If neither spouse nor children survive the deceased, intestate succession provides for distribution to grandchildren, siblings and parents in varying proportions. If no relatives survive the deceased, the property will go to the state.


Although the IRS imposes an estate tax on estates worth more than a certain exemption amount, this tax varies widely from year to year. In 2012, it applied only to estates worth more than $5,120,000, and the top tax rate was 35 percent. Some states also impose "death taxes" with different exemptions and lower tax rates.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
What Must a Surviving Spouse Inherit?



Related articles

The Inheritance Hierarchy Without a Will in New York State

A person who dies without leaving a will is said to have died “intestate.” New York courts distribute intestate property according to a statutory scheme of succession and these laws apply only to property located in the state of New York. Laws of other states may apply to real property located outside of New York, even if the decedent had been a legal resident of the state. The intent of New York's intestate succession law is to distribute the estate in the manner in which the decedent likely would have had she left a will; the statutory scheme distributes the decedent's property to the closest surviving relatives first.

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.

Maryland's Inheritance Law

When a person dies, his estate, comprised of all property acquired during his lifetime, will be distributed to his heirs and beneficiaries. In Maryland, property passes in accordance with the state's inheritance laws. These laws provide guidance for estates passing by will or through intestate succession, as well as nonprobate assets. Beneficiaries are determined by how the deceased's estate is set up.

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

Related articles

Dying Without a Will in Kentucky

If a person dies without a valid will, the law describes it as dying “intestate.” In this situation, the laws of the ...

North Carolina's Inheritance Law

When a person dies with a valid will in North Carolina, his property will pass to the beneficiaries he named in his ...

Who Is Legally the Next of Kin?

Next of kin is a legal term that comes up when someone has died without a will. If an individual dies without leaving a ...

Does a Quitclaim Deed Pass to the Heirs?

When a person dies, a significant portion of his property passes through the probate process to be divided and ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED