Learn About the Rights of Heirs-at-Law

What Rights Do Heirs-at-Law Have?

Senior couple. Credit: Terry Vine / Getty Images

An heir-at-law is anyone who is entitled to inherit from someone who dies without leaving a last will and testament. This can be an important factor not only in settling an estate but in determining who might be entitled to challenge or contest a will when the deceased does leave one. 

Heirs-at-Law

Heirs-at-law are determined individually by each state's laws so they can differ a little depending on where the decedent died and what he owned.

Most states' laws are very similar, however. Heirs-at-law and their rights to inherit are decided in an order called "intestate succession." 

A surviving spouse is invariably the first in line to inherit if the decedent was married. In most states, she shares the estate with the deceased's living children. His grandchildren would be heirs-at-law only if their parents are deceased. A parent's share typically skips to his child rather than to his siblings in this case -- the deceased's other children.

The deceased's parents, siblings, grandparents and other next of kin would inherit (usually in that order) only if he left no surviving spouse, children or grandchildren.These people would only be considered heirs-at-law if they would indeed have inherited because no more immediate relatives are living. 

Probate Without a Will 

Probate is typically required even when someone dies without a will.

He still has an estate if he owned any property or assets, and probate is the legal process of transferring that estate into the ownership of living beneficiaries. Property in an intestate estate -- one without a will -- goes to the deceased's heirs-at-law according to state law. 

Which State's Rules Apply

In most cases, a deceased person's heirs-at-law are determined by the intestacy laws of the state where he lived at the time of his death.

But if he owned real estate or tangible personal property located outside his home state, the intestacy laws of that other state may apply and govern how that particular property is distributed. This can result in a different set of beneficiaries or different shares among the same beneficiaries. 

Heirs-at-Law and Will Contests 

When a decedent does leave a will but glaringly omits someone who should have inherited had he died without one, this individual has something called "standing" to challenge or contest the will in court. Not just anyone can do this -- he must have some financial stake in the estate, so an heir-in-law would qualify. This might be the case if the deceased left his entire estate to one child and omitted mention of his other child entirely.  

Status as an heir-in-law does not necessarily mean that a lawsuit to overturn the will would be successful. The heir-at-law would also have to establish that the deceased didn't intentionally omit him from the will, disowning him. He's not automatically entitled to inherit when there's a will that doesn't mention him, but only if the deceased died intestate. 

A surviving spouse is an exception to this rule. All states but Georgia prohibit a married individual from disowning his spouse and have other laws in place to make sure she receives a fair share of his estate.

She's always an heir-at-law, but she would not have to actually contest the will to claim her share.