What Is a Universal Heir?

By Ciele Edwards

Creating a will gives you the opportunity to dictate who gets what after you die. After paying off your debts, the probate court distributes any remaining assets to your loved ones according to the directions you provided in your will. If you leave all of your remaining assets to one person rather than stipulating that the court divide your assets between more than one party, the beneficiary of the inheritance is your “sole” or “universal” heir.


The concept of a universal heir dates back to ancient Rome. Rather than dividing property and assets equally among loved ones, Romans typically designated a single “main” heir to inherit their goods. The main heir was dubbed the “universal heir.” A modern universal heir differs from those in ancient Rome, being the only heir to the deceased's estate.

Heir by Default

In most cases, if an heir is considered “universal,” it is because the deceased intentionally left all assets to that individual. In some cases, however, an individual can become a universal heir by default. If, for example, the heir is the deceased's only living relative, the court will grant her universal status and award her all of the deceased's assets. This can occur even if the deceased did not leave behind a will. The heir does not inherit the deceased's estate because he specifically wanted her to have it. Rather, she inherits the estate because no one else has or makes a valid claim against it.

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Creating a Will

While considering your own mortality may make you uncomfortable, proper planning now can help ensure that your assets will be distributed according to your wishes. Creating a will is particularly important if you plan to leave all of your worldly goods to a single universal heir. Although state laws vary with regard to asset distribution, if you die without a will the probate court will distribute your assets according to the state's inheritance formula. In most cases, you must formally stipulate your intention to leave your assets to a universal heir for that person to receive his full inheritance.


Leaving all of your assets to a universal heir in your will does not guarantee that the intended beneficiary will receive those assets – especially if you have other family members who feel that they are also entitled to an inheritance. Provided that those who did not receive an inheritance have a valid reason to do so, they can contest your will with the probate court. Valid reasons for contesting a will vary, but often include fraud; undue influence from the beneficiary; and mental incompetence.

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The Hierarchy of Heirs

The hierarchy of heirs is determined by laws that govern inheritance in each state. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code and have based their inheritance laws on its recommendations. The Uniform Probate Code provides rules concerning who is entitled to inherit a deceased relative's property/estate if no last will and testament was executed. Although laws may vary somewhat by state, typically the hierarchy of heirs is intended to divide the estate fairly among surviving family members.

What Is Meant by Share and Share-Alike in a Will?

Some legal terms carry their own peculiar definition but others mean exactly what they seem to mean. The expression share and share alike means the same thing in a will that it does on the playground: everyone who is included in the group at the time of distribution gets an equal share of the object or assets in question.

What Happens When One of the Heirs in a Will Dies?

When a person plans for their estate, she generally identifies which people she wants to receive her property in her will. However, there are times when a beneficiary named in a will dies before the drafter of the will does. What happens to the property the deceased beneficiary was supposed to receive depends on the will and probate code of the state where the drafter of the will lived.

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