What are Inheritance Rights?

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  • Written By: Patrick Roland
  • Edited By: R. Halprin
  • Last Modified Date: 01 March 2020
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Inheritance rights are the laws that dictate who can claim a deceased person's estate. Jurisdictions have different sets of regulations dealing with the finer points, but all share certain similarities. In most cases, the rights of individuals to claim property and assets after a death are dictated by a will or family relationships to the deceased. Rights may be different for spouses, ex-spouses, biological children, and adopted children in regards to claiming a portion of an estate.

The creation of a will is generally the easiest way to assure that all assets are properly distributed after death. This simple document allows a person to set forth precisely what property, money, and other assets goes to specific individuals upon death. Under the laws of inheritance, an individual may contest a will in court if that individual feels the will was not an accurate distribution of assets. If the decease person has no will, which is called dying "intestate," property is usually distributed according to the laws of the jurisdiction.


A spouse is normally provided the bulk of assets left behind, according to most inheritance rights. In the U.S., for example, there are two types of spousal inheritance rights: Community property and non-community property. In a community property state, a spouse is automatically entitled to half of whatever was earned during that marriage. In a non-community property state, there is no guarantee of how much can be claimed, but is generally one third to one half of the deceased's assets, however some states base the amount the length of marriage. Also, in most cases, unless stated otherwise in a will, ex-spouses lose any inheritance rights once a divorce is finalized.

Children claiming inheritance rights must deal with slightly more ambiguous rules. In general, children may not be entitled to any claim and inheritance of the deceased's assets unless stated in the will. There are exceptions to this rule, such as if a child was born after the will was originally written. In this case, known as accidental disinheritance, the child is given an equal share to other siblings even though the will does not so provide.

Adopted children occupy a complex realm of inheritance because they have both biological and legal parents. In almost all cases, the adopted child is granted the same rights as if he or she were biologically born into the family. The relationship between the birth parents and child is where the issue gets complicated. Generally, once an adoption has taken place, any legal ties between the birth parents and child are severed. In some jurisdictions, for example, biological parents can actually claim an inheritance if the child dies before them.


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