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.
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.