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Inheritance refers to property acquired through the laws of descent and distribution. Though sometimes used in reference to property acquired through a will, the legal meaning of inheritance includes only property that descends to an heir through intestacy, when a person has died intestate. Any part of a person’s estate not disposed of by a valid will or trust is overseen by a probate court following each state’s laws of intestate succession.

Generally, only a decedent’s spouse and relatives are entitled to an inheritance. A living spouse is usually entitled to the largest share of the estate, or the entirety if a decedent had no children. In the event a decedent had no living spouse, the estate is divided between surviving issue, either by right of representation or per capita. In the event a decedent had neither a living spouse nor any surviving issue, their estate would pass to the next closest relative or relatives, or to the state if no relative can be found.

Intestate succession laws vary from state to state. While who qualifies as a spouse or child–and thus entitled to an inheritance–is usually straightforward, there can be some variations, such as in states that recognize common law marriage or unadopted stepchildren as intestate heirs.

[Last updated in June of 2020 by the Wex Definitions Team]