How to Find Out If I am the Heir to a Person or Estate

by Teo Spengler

Am I an heir to an estate? If a family member dies, it's natural to wonder if you are in line to inherit anything. Only the closest living family members inherit if the person did not leave a will. But if the deceased left a will, anyone named in a will can inherit regardless of family association.

Tips

  • To find out if you will inherit money from someone who didn't leave a will, determine whether you are the closest living family member. To find out if you inherited under a will, call the executor or review the will in probate court.

Am I an Heir to Money?

If someone dies without a will, the property passes by "intestate succession" to near relatives of the person who died. State laws specify the order in which close relatives inherit. The person to inherit is termed the "heir" or the "heir at law." Court-appointed administrators are in charge of finding heirs to estates.

Most intestate succession statutes establish the heirs in this order: surviving spouse, the children, the parents and the siblings. If there is no surviving spouse or parents, the decedent's children may inherit everything. If there are no kids or parents, the surviving spouse inherits. If the decedent didn't leave either a spouse or children, many states name the decedent's parents and/or siblings as the heirs. After that comes other relatives such as aunts and uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and grandparents in the order the state statute specifies.

To figure out whether you are an heir to an estate, check the state intestate succession statute and determine where your relationship falls on the legal spectrum. If you are the dead person's only relative or the closest relative under state law, you are the heir.

Am I the Beneficiary of an Estate?

If a person dies and leaves a will, the people or organizations named in the will inherit. They are called "beneficiaries," not heirs. Beneficiaries can be relatives, but in most cases, a person writing a will can simply leave his property to whomever or whatever he wishes, from his postman to his favorite charity. A surviving spouse may be entitled to a share, however, even if not named in the will.

If you have reason to believe that you might have been named the beneficiary of the estate of someone who died, it's not hard to find out. Simply contact the executor, the person in charge of shepherding the will through the probate process, and ask her. Alternatively, walk into probate court in the town in which the deceased person lived and ask to see the file. Just give the clerk the deceased person's name and the date of death. The will should be one of the first documents in the file, so you won't have any trouble finding it.

Resources

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About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Spengler splits her time between French Basque Country and California.