Heir or Beneficiary?

These terms are regularly confused.

An heir is a person who is entitled to property of a deceased person (aka decedent), if that person died without a will.

A beneficiary is a person who is given property through a valid will.


Not everything owned by a person at the time of their death must go through the probate process. For instance, certain types of property owned jointly (as tenants by the entireties), or owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, do can be transferred without probating a will. In many instances, it may only be necessary to file a certified copy of the death certificate with the clerk of the circuit court to show that the entire property interest is now in the hands of the survivor.

This type of property ownership is not limited merely to real property, but can extend to car title, joint bank accounts, etc. For that reason, it is important when planning your estate, that you take into consideration any contractual rights to be paid. For instance, life insurance policies, payable on death accounts, or retirement accounts are typically paid to the named beneficiaries on the accounts, so it is important that you consult with the financial institutions who run these accounts to make sure that your beneficiaries are up to date.