In general, an heir is a person who is entitled to inherit all or part of a deceased person’s estate. However, in legal terms, heir has a narrower meaning. The term "heir” specifically refers to a person who inherits assets from the estate of a person who died without a will. There are two major types of heirs.
An heir-at-law is a person who is legally entitled to inherit assets from an estate when a person dies without a valid will. Heirs-at-law include surviving spouses; lineal heirs, such as parents and children; and collateral heirs, such as siblings and cousins. State laws establish the rules of descent and distribution when a person dies without a will. For example, under Virginia law, if a person dies without a will and does not have a surviving spouse, the decedent's children and their descendants receive the estate’s assets.
A prospective heir is a person who may inherit assets from an estate in the future. However, this person might not receive assets when the owner of the estate dies if there is a change in circumstances. There are two types of prospective heirs. An heir apparent is a person who is legally entitled to inherit assets from an estate, unless she dies first or a valid will excludes her from receiving any assets. The only child of a widow is a classic example of an heir apparent. A presumptive heir is a person who will inherit assets from an estate unless a more closely-related heir arises. For example, parents are often presumptive heirs of their child’s estate until the child marries or has a child.
Distribution of Assets to Heirs
When a person dies without a valid will, state laws govern the allocation of the assets of the person’s estate. Following state probate rules, an estate’s administrator determines who is entitled to receive assets from the estate and what portion each heir receives.
Beneficiaries vs. Heirs
When a deceased person leaves a valid will, a person who inherits assets from the estate is known as a beneficiary. An executor follows the terms of the will to distribute the estate’s assets to the beneficiaries named in the will. When a person dies without a will, an administrator follows state laws that govern the distribution of an estate’s assets. If a will fails to designate beneficiaries for all of an estate’s assets, these assets are usually distributed to the deceased person’s heirs according to the requirements of state probate law.