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Inheritance Succession Laws

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What is Inheritance Succession?

Inheritance succession refers to the manner in which property is distributed when a person dies.  In almost all cases, a person would like their estate to be distributed upon death in a very specific manner.  Most persons leave their property to immediate family members, close relatives, and close friends. 

When doing so, the property is usually distributed in an order of preference or priority.  Thus, the ordering of property distribution is called inheritance succession.

How is Inheritance Succession Determined?

Ideally, the owner of the estate will specify exactly who will receive what upon their death.  This is usually done through a written will instrument.  However, it often happens that a person passes away before they are able to record their preferences for inheritance succession in a will.

In the event that a person dies without a valid will in place, it is known as “intestacy”.  If a person dies intestate, then their property will have to be distributed according to intestacy laws.  Thus, inheritance succession is sometimes called “intestacy succession”.   

The aim of intestate succession laws is to distribute the property in a manner that represents how an average person would have planned if they had formed a will.  However, intestacy succession can sometimes be unfavorable, as state intestacy laws will not always yield the same distribution of property that the deceased person would have wanted.  For this reason, it is always best for a person to have a valid will prepared early on in life. 

What is the Order of Inheritance Succession?

Every state has intestacy laws that govern inheritance succession or intestacy succession if a person dies without a will.  In effect, the state “creates” a will for the person who dies intestate.  Most states model their intestacy laws after the Uniform Probate Code (UPC, or “the Code”). 

While state laws may vary, the distribution format in the Code can provide a general idea of inheritance succession.  According to the Code, close relatives will always receive distributions first.  If any property is left over, distance relatives may receive a portion of the distribution. 

A typical order of preference may be as follows:  Surviving spouse; “descendents” (such as children or grandchildren); parents of the deceased, siblings, nieces and nephews; grandparents; and aunts, uncles and cousins.  Adopted children are treated in the same way as biological children.

If any of the property is not distributed to the classes named above, the property will “escheat”, or be distributed back to the state.  

How Much Will Each Relative Receive Through Inheritance Succession?

The percentage the estate that each relative receives depends on many factors.  In general, a surviving spouse and surviving children are usually entitled to the entire estate or most of the estate.  Thus, a relative may receive more or less depending mostly on whether the deceased person was survived by a spouse or children. 

Again, the share distributions and percentages may vary by state; according to the Code, the estate is divided as follows:

  1. Surviving Spouse:  A surviving spouse is usually entitled to receive the entire estate (after taxes and expenses).  Or, they will usually receive a substantial part of the estate.  This may change depending on whether the deceased has left surviving children and parents.
  2. Surviving Children:  If no spouse is left surviving, the children may take the entire estate through “right of representation”.
  3. Surviving Parents:  The parents may receive the entire estate if no spouse or children are left by the estate owner.
  4. Other Relatives:  If the decedent left no surviving spouse, children, or parents, then the deceased’s siblings will take the entire estate.  If no siblings exist, the estate will go to the grandparents or the deceased’s aunts and uncles. 

The net estate is the amount of the estate remaining for distribution after all the relatives have received their distributions, and after all debts, taxes and expenses have been paid on the property.  It is common for the estate funds to be exhausted at this point.

Do I Need a Lawyer for Inheritance Succession?

Inheritance succession can often be a source of many legal disputes over property and assets.  This is especially true if the estate owner did not leave behind a valid will containing clear instructions on distributions.  If you are facing disputes over inheritance succession, you may wish to contact a lawyer for advice.  Or, if you need assistance in drafting a will, an attorney can help you create one.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 10-03-2016 09:14 PM PDT

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