When a person dies and their estate is in probate, the court must often identify their next of kin to award them their inheritance. But who qualifies? The term next of kin usually means a person’s closest living relatives, such as their spouse or children, but the complexities of family relationships complicate matters. Many families find that determining next of kin is not always so clear-cut.

Luckily, in the United States, state laws concerning descent and distribution offer established definitions and guidance. This enables the court to fairly determine who stands to inherit in a variety of situations.

When is Next of Kin Relevant?

Where there is a will, there should be no question as to who is to receive the bounty of the deceased because the will should clearly specify this. However, in some instances where the beneficiaries are deceased or cannot be located, the local court may need to determine who is the deceased’s next of kin.  If the person died intestate, meaning where there is no will, only the closest living relatives can inherit the deceased person’s estate.

Who Are Next of Kin?

In Ohio, the law defines who qualifies as next of kin.  According to state laws, there are many levels of kin, and where one level has no members, the next level benefits.

The first level is a surviving spouse where all of the children of the decedent are also of the surviving spouse. If the children of the deceased are from prior relationships, they are included in this first level as well.

Where there is no surviving spouse, the next level is children of the deceased.  If any of the children are deceased, their children take their place.

If there are no kin in the first two levels, then the deceased’s parents inherit. If there are no living parents, then siblings of either full or half-blood inherit.  If there are no surviving siblings, then lineal descendants of the grandparents, such as nieces and nephews, become the beneficiaries.

Next, if there are no blood relatives as defined, then the law moves on to step-children.  Finally, if there are no kin in the last level, then the money escheats to the State of Ohio general fund.  Escheat is a Latin word meaning “to fall.”

Outside of Ohio

If you have heard confusing explanations for next of kin, it might be from state laws outside of Ohio or even outside of the United States. While most states follow the same hierarchy of inheritance levels as above, there can be differences in some jurisdictions or scenarios that Ohio law does not address. For instance, some states make concessions for unmarried domestic partners that allow them to inherit some property in the event that there is no will, but in most states, these partners have no inheritance rights.

Things get trickier–or simpler, depending on your view–in the United Kingdom where the term next of kin is not defined by law and individuals can nominate anyone to fulfill that role. While they usually choose a spouse or blood relative, it is not uncommon to nominate a close friend or neighbor instead. Of course, the nominee must agree. However, this agreement has no bearing on inheritance and usually only applies to the context of health care. The nation’s intestacy laws dictate who inherits estates when there is no will.

Reading the Will

Despite what the movies and legend may imply, no court requires a reading of the will to the closest living relatives. However, once the will is submitted for probate, it does become a part of the public record. Interested parties can review it at the courthouse where it was filed at any time after that.

It is recommended that executors, administrators and probate attorneys meet with expectant beneficiaries to share the contents of a will and to explain its operation. This will ensure that there are no surprises.

Will Disputes

While determining next of kin is vital when a decedent dies in intestate, it also applies when there is a dispute over a legal will. Those who are next of kin by law–who would have inherited if there was no will–have the right to contest a will if they feel the will is a product of fraud, duress, undue influence, or some other error.

Only a person’s closest living family members can make such claims in court.

If the case is found in their favor, they would then inherit according to the laws of intestate succession.

Honoring both a lost loved one’s wishes and the law can be confusing and difficult during probate, but with the guidance of an experienced attorney and Ohio intestate laws, even complicated inheritances can be sorted out and resolved satisfactorily.

Simplify the probate process and get a resolution quicker with guidance from our experienced probate attorneys.

Contact Port Legal of Central Ohio today to find out how we can help you find the best solutions for all of your family’s estate questions and concerns.