Though the terms heirs and beneficiaries are often used interchangeably, many Pennsylvania residents may not be aware that they have different legal meanings and implications. Understanding the difference between the two can help people understand their status is one's estate plan.
A heir is someone who has the legal right to inherit some or all of the decedent's estate if he or she has died without a will. After a person dies intestate, that is, without a valid will, then the state's probate laws will determine how heirs will receive their property. Heirs are typically children, or other close relatives of the decedent. It might surprise many to hear that spouses are not generally considered an heir, unless mentioned in one's will. They are generally entitled to the decedent's property through marital property or community property laws. Property that is given to an heir is known as an inheritance. There are different types of heirs and their status in law differs accordingly.
The proper term for someone who is inheriting property that has been left to them in a will, trust, insurance policy or last testament is a beneficiary. Not all heirs are beneficiaries, such as an estranged child intentionally left out of a will, who would inherit if there weren't a will in place. Similarly, a beneficiary could be someone other than a heir, such as a friend who has been given property through a will who would not inherit intestate.
The difference between heirs and beneficiaries can be important to those who are thinking about creating their estate plan. If someone wishes to ensure that loved ones who would not typically receive their property upon their death get what is owed to them, having a valid estate plan in place can be one way to achieve this. An experienced attorney can discuss one's options with them.