In the estate inheritance process there are beneficiaries and there are heirs-at-law. At times the two may be the same, but often this is not the case. Whether beneficiaries or heirs-at-law inherit your estate will depend upon whether you have a valid Last Will and Testament.
When you create a Last Will and Testament or a Revocable Living Trust you will name beneficiaries. These are the people that you choose to inherit your property. You will even dictate how much each person receives.
Your beneficiaries can be anyone. You can leave something to your children, your live-in partner, your step-child or even your mail person. When you have a valid Last Will and Testament or Living Trust, your estate executor or successor trustee must honor your wishes and award property to any beneficiary that you have named.
If you do not have a valid Last Will and Testament either because you did not create one or because it was not legally signed, then your heirs-at-law will receive your estate holdings. Heirs-at-law are usually your closest relatives. State law determines who has the right to the remains of your estate. Heirs-at-law are usually your children, your spouse or your parents. If none of these are available, then the law will determine who is next in line to inherit. If you have property in other states, your heirs-at-law that receive that property may be different than the heirs in your home state.
When state law dictates who inherits your property, others that you would have liked to include such as your live-in partner or your best friend may excluded. If you want to dictate who your beneficiaries are, instead of letting the law decide, it is urgent to create a solid estate plan.