Identify heirs of the estate

Settle the Estate

An heir is a person who is legally entitled to the property or assets of the deceased.

This person may also be referred to as a beneficiary of the estate.

While every state has their own laws identifying who is a legal heir, most heirs are generally the children, descendants, or other close relatives of the deceased.

Lightbulb_Icon.svgGood to Know Spouses are usually not called an heir because they are legally entitled to certain assets of the deceased as a result of marital or community property laws.

Spouses may still be entitled to certain assets of the deceased even if they are not listed in the deceased’s will.

Review the questions below to identify the heirs of the deceased’s estate.

Personal Considerations


Did the deceased have a Will?


It should identify the deceased’s heirs.

Review the will for any names listed as surviving family, heirs, or beneficiaries.

Contact these people and let them know they were named in the deceased’s will.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If the deceased had a will that does not identify any heirs, assets of the estate will be given to heirs according to state law.


Assets of the estate will be given to heirs according to state law.

Review the laws of intestacy in the state where the deceased lived.

These laws will identify the legal heirs of the deceased’s estate.


If the deceased had a Will:

It should identify the deceased’s heirs.

Review the will for any names listed as surviving family, heirs, or beneficiaries.

Contact these people and let them know they were named in the deceased’s will.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If the deceased had a will that does not identify any heirs, assets of the estate will be given to heirs according to state law.

If the deceased did not have a Will:

Assets of the estate will be given to heirs according to state law.

Review the laws of intestacy in the state where the deceased lived.

These laws will identify the legal heirs of the deceased’s estate.


Does the deceased have heirs?


They will either be identified in the deceased’s will or determined by the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

The heirs will be entitled to the assets given to them in the deceased’s will or a percentage of the estate, as determined by state law.

If the heirs are identified in the deceased’s will, contact them and let them know they’ve been named as an heir in the deceased’s will.

Also let them know who the executor is, as the executor will be responsible for giving them the assets of the estate.

If heirs are not identified in the will, review the laws of the state where the deceased lived to determine legal heirs.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about finding and contacting heirs, see the “Notify persons of interest" section of the Guide.


It is worth noting that most states make every attempt to find a living heir of the deceased.

This might include aunts, uncles, and even cousins of the deceased.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If the deceased does not have any living heirs, the value of the deceased’s estate will go to the state where the deceased lived.

While every state is different, most states will give estate assets to a state school fund or other designated government branch.


If the deceased has heirs:

They will either be identified in the deceased’s will or determined by the laws of the state where the deceased lived.

The heirs will be entitled to the assets given to them in the deceased’s will or a percentage of the estate, as determined by state law.

If the heirs are identified in the deceased’s will, contact them and let them know they’ve been named as an heir in the deceased’s will.

Also let them know who the executor is, as the executor will be responsible for giving them the assets of the estate.

If heirs are not identified in the will, review the laws of the state where the deceased lived to determine legal heirs.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about finding and contacting heirs, see the “Notify persons of interest" section of the Guide.

If the deceased does not have heirs:

It is worth noting that most states make every attempt to find a living heir of the deceased.

This might include aunts, uncles, and even cousins of the deceased.

Exclamation_Icon.svgImportant If the deceased does not have any living heirs, the value of the deceased’s estate will go to the state where the deceased lived.

While every state is different, most states will give estate assets to a state school fund or other designated government branch.


Were people left out of the will who should have been included?


Notify individuals who were left out of the will who should have been included.

If they feel the will is invalid (because they were forgotten) they would have to file a lawsuit and prove they were supposed to be part of the will.

This can be a difficult and emotional process, so it is important to speak with an attorney.

Typically, people left accidentally out of a will include:

  • Spouses (if the deceased was married after creating their will)
  • Children born or adopted after the will was created
  • Grandchildren born or adopted after the will was created

Move on to the next question to determine who the deceased’s heirs were.


If there are people left out of the will who should have been included:

Notify individuals who were left out of the will who should have been included.

If they feel the will is invalid (because they were forgotten) they would have to file a lawsuit and prove they were supposed to be part of the will.

This can be a difficult and emotional process, so it is important to speak with an attorney.

Typically, people left accidentally out of a will include:

  • Spouses (if the deceased was married after creating their will)
  • Children born or adopted after the will was created
  • Grandchildren born or adopted after the will was created
If the will includes everyone who should be included:

Move on to the next question to determine who the deceased’s heirs were.


Is there only a single heir to the estate?


Contact them and notify them that they are the only heir identified in the deceased’s will.

Let them know who the executor is, as they will need to communicate with the executor to get assets of the estate.

Having a single heir may make the estate administration process simpler and more efficient, as there is less room for dispute.


Contact the heirs and notify them that they were identified in the deceased’s will.

Let them know who the executor is, as they will need to communicate with the executor to get assets of the estate.

During the legal probate process, the heirs may be given the assets of the estate by the executor.

Assets must be distributed according to the deceased’s will, or, in the absence of a will, according to state law.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about opening an estate and probate court, see the “Distribute personal possessions” section of the Guide.


If there is only a single heir to the estate:

Contact them and notify them that they are the only heir identified in the deceased’s will.

Let them know who the executor is, as they will need to communicate with the executor to get assets of the estate.

Having a single heir may make the estate administration process simpler and more efficient, as there is less room for dispute.

If there are multiple heirs to the estate:

Contact the heirs and notify them that they were identified in the deceased’s will.

Let them know who the executor is, as they will need to communicate with the executor to get assets of the estate.

During the legal probate process, the heirs may be given the assets of the estate by the executor.

Assets must be distributed according to the deceased’s will, or, in the absence of a will, according to state law.

Guides_Icon.svgRead More To learn more about opening an estate and probate court, see the “Distribute personal possessions” section of the Guide.


Is the executor also an heir?


When an executor is also an heir, certain conflicts of interest may arise, where the executor has to choose between their role as an executor and their rights as an heir.

Normally, executors cannot have a conflict of interest - meaning that they cannot do things that will benefit themselves over the estate.

For instance, if an executor gives themselves assets of the estate before paying the bills and debts of the estate, this might be a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

If this occurs, it may be wise to speak with a probate attorney who can ensure the executor does not violate any laws or rules.


There is less of a chance of conflicts of interest.

The executor will need to act in the best interest of the estate at all times, this means doing whatever is necessary to protect the assets of the estate, and follow the instructions in the deceased’s will, as well as paying bills and debts of the estate.


If the executor is also an heir:

When an executor is also an heir, certain conflicts of interest may arise, where the executor has to choose between their role as an executor and their rights as an heir.

Normally, executors cannot have a conflict of interest - meaning that they cannot do things that will benefit themselves over the estate.

For instance, if an executor gives themselves assets of the estate before paying the bills and debts of the estate, this might be a conflict of interest or an abuse of power.

If this occurs, it may be wise to speak with a probate attorney who can ensure the executor does not violate any laws or rules.

If the executor is not an heir:

There is less of a chance of conflicts of interest.

The executor will need to act in the best interest of the estate at all times, this means doing whatever is necessary to protect the assets of the estate, and follow the instructions in the deceased’s will, as well as paying bills and debts of the estate.

Providers to Contact


Probate Attorneys Near You

Probate attorneys help settle a deceased person’s estate. They can help you identify and communicate with heirs or potentially contest the deceased’s Will if heirs have been unintentionally left out of the Will.

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Settle the Estate