What is an Heir-At-Law?

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  • Written By: K.C. Bruning
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 29 January 2020
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An heir-at-law inherits an estate if the deceased individual has not created a legal last will and testament. This kind of heir is determined depending on where the person died and what laws there are about distribution of inheritances in that area. If the deceased had properties in other jurisdictions besides the primary place of residence, the heir-at-law will be determined according to the laws in that area. Heirs-at-law are usually ancestors of the deceased, whether in direct lineage, such as a spouse or offspring, or indirect, as with siblings or cousins.

The heir-at-law is decided by jurisdiction and may vary by different governing areas. For example, if the deceased lived in one state in the United States of America, but had property in one or more other states, provinces, or other jurisdictions around the world, then the local laws regarding the distribution of each part of the estate would be followed. The heir-at-law would be determined according to the laws and regulations of each separate area.


When the deceased does not have a legal will, intestacy laws guide the government through the process of dividing the estate. Intestacy is a state of affairs in which the deceased leaves more property than that which is required to settle funeral expenses and any remaining debts upon death. The term is also commonly known as descent and distribution. If the deceased does not have a valid last will and testament, inheritance is usually decided according to whatever local laws are in place for descent and distribution.

In most situations, heir-at-law status is given to either a lineal or a collateral heir. Lineal heirs are direct descendants or ascendants of a common ancestor, such as offspring. Those who are not directly linked ancestors, such as cousins, siblings, or uncles are known as collateral heirs.

If the deceased had property in several different jurisdictions, the laws of each area may determine the heir-at-law in different ways. This means that there could be multiple beneficiaries for each jurisdiction. The property could also be divided differently among beneficiaries depending on local laws. It is also possible for the same individual or group of people to inherit all property, regardless of where it is located.

Typical heirs-at-law include spouses and offspring. In some jurisdictions, common law partners are also considered eligible heirs. When the deceased is not a parent or married, siblings, cousins, and aunts or uncles are usually selected as beneficiaries. If there are living parents, they may also be chosen to be heirs, though they are often given lower priority than other family members.


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