An heir is someone whose relationship to the deceased gives him a legal right to the deceased's property upon her death. While the law establishes certain rights for heirs, those rights can be undermined or even revoked by the deceased's will, a court determination or the heir himself.
When a person dies without specifying what she wants done with her property, intestate laws comes into play, giving the descendants of the deceased -- the heirs -- a legal right to his property. Each state has its own laws defining both how to determine heirship and the order in which multiple valid heirs stand to inherit the estate. Most states establish special rights to a share of the estate, known as an "elective" or "forced" share, for spouses and children of the deceased. Generally, other heirs will be unable to take property until these elective shares are fulfilled.
A clear statement in a will may revoke the heirship rights of a descendant. Traditionally, American law did not allow such an express disinheritance unless the will disposed of all the property. However, many states now recognize the ability of individuals to explicitly disinherit particular descendants in a will. It is usually not possible to disinherit individuals who are able to claim an elective share of the estate.
Disclaimer of Inheritance
An heir always has the right to refuse his inheritance; thus, legally revoke all of his rights to the property. This process is known as "disclaimer of inheritance," and generally requires the heir to execute a written, signed document that clearly describes his intent to relinquish his inheritance. Heirs may disclaim their inheritance for any number of reasons, including not wanting to pay taxes on the property or not wanting the property itself. The law in most states treats the disclaiming heir as if he died before the deceased, but others will consider the disclaiming heir's status for tax purposes. Either way, after disclaimer, the property will then pass to the next heir in the line of succession.
Read More: What Is a Waiver of Inheritance?
Certain actions by an heir allow a court to legally revoke his rights to inherit, based on the idea that he's an "unworthy heir." All states have laws that prevent an individual who intentionally killed the deceased from inheriting the deceased's property. Various states also deem heirs unworthy if they have abandoned their deceased spouses or failed to support their deceased children. Another group of states finds an heir unworthy if he's committed physical, financial or fiduciary abuse of an elder or dependent adult.
- "Wills, Trusts and Estates (Seventh Edition)"; Jesse Dukeminier, Robert H. Sitkoff, James M. Lindgren and Stanley M. Johanson; Aspen Publishers; 2005
- Onecle.com: California Probate Code, Section 259
Erika Johansen is a lifelong writer with a Master of Fine Arts from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and editorial experience in scholastic publication. She has written articles for various websites.