The term ‘heir’ refers to a person who is entitled to property owned by a deceased family member. Individuals can bequeath property to heirs through their last will and testament or a trust. When a person dies without leaving a Will, their assets are given to rightful heirs according to state probate laws.
An heir can be a surviving spouse, minor or adult children, mother, father, or siblings. Heirs can also include direct lineage relatives such as aunts, uncles, and cousins. Individuals can bequeath property to whomever they desire. If they gift items to anyone outside the family, those individuals are referred to as beneficiaries. Although somewhat confusing, heirs can be beneficiaries, but beneficiaries are not always heirs.
The only way to ensure property is distributed according to your wishes is to execute a legal Will. When property is held in a trust, the Will is used to provide directives regarding distribution. Unless inheritance assets are placed into a trust, the estate must undergo the probate process.
Probate is required to settle decedent estates. Two types of probate exist – testate and intestate. Testate refers to estates which include a last Will, while intestate refers to estates where no Will exists. The probate process varies depending on the type. Intestate estates take longer to settle because additional procedures must be taken.
The last will and testament is also used to designate a probate personal representative. This person is responsible for all tasks required to settle the estate. This can include paying any outstanding debts owed by the decedent; filing a final tax return and paying outstanding taxes; obtaining appraisals for valuable property; securing personal property owned by the decedent; and distributing inheritance gifts left to heirs and beneficiaries.
The last will can also be used to disinherit an heir. When a person decides to leave a direct lineage relative out of their Will they must include a disinheritance clause which states the reason for exclusion. While this clause does not prevent heirs from contesting the Will, it can minimize the risk. If a disinheritance statement is not included, heirs can prolong the probate process by claiming the decedent was influenced by another person or not in their right mind when executing the Will.
Contesting a Will is a costly process that often bankrupts estates due to excessive legal fees. Those who have direct lineage relatives whom they do not want to bequeath gifts to should consult with a probate lawyer to ensure their Will is properly executed.
Engaging in estate planning can keep certain assets out of probate and allow quick distribution to heirs. Individuals with checking or savings accounts can designate beneficiaries to receive funds at death. This is referred to as payable on death (POD) beneficiaries. Account holders must fill out POD beneficiary forms to provide the names, addresses, date of birth, and social security number. Upon death, beneficiaries must provide photo ID and a copy of the decedent’s death certificate to claim funds.
Individuals with retirement accounts or financial portfolios can assign transfer on death (TOD) beneficiaries. Upon death, heirs can elect to transfer funds into a new account to avoid estate taxes or cash-out the account. It is best to consult with a tax attorney to discuss tax ramifications before accepting lump sum cash.
Executing a last will and testament is one of the best gifts you can leave loved ones. Wills should be updated when major events occur. These might include buying or selling real estate; starting or closing a business; or when a new heir is born or a designated heir dies.