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What is the difference between an “heir” and a “beneficiary”?

Posted by Michael Guzman | Apr 20, 2017 | 0 Comments

In the area of legal terminology, there are several words that seem similar but actually have distinct legal meanings. In the context of probate and trust administration, two of these words are “beneficiary” and “heir.” They might sometimes be used interchangeably in common usage. However, in the legal sense, they are different and have different legal implications.


A beneficiary is essentially someone specifically named to receive a benefit. For instance, the person you name to receive your life insurance proceeds is the beneficiary of the policy. If an alternate is named (someone who gets the benefit if the first person does not), they are referred to as the contingent beneficiary. In a will or trust, whoever is specifically designated to receive something is a beneficiary. It may be an individual, such as a friend or family member. It could also be an entity, like a charity, such as with a charitable trust.


An heir, on the other hand, refers to someone who is legally entitled to receive property after someone dies, even if they are not named. Often, this ends up being a close relative, such as a spouse or child. If someone dies without an estate plan describing their wishes, the law (specifically, state inheritance law) steps in and determines who gets the property. Dying without a will is called dying “intestate.”

Throughout the world, different countries, states, and cultures have developed their own unique inheritance laws. For instance, women's inheritance rights have often been unjustly subordinate to that of male relatives, although many of these laws have thankfully changed with the passage of time.

In California, who gets what depends on which family members are alive at the decedent's death, with priority first going to the spouse and children. For example, if someone dies with a spouse and no children, the spouse inherits the property. If someone dies with children, but no spouse, the children get everything. (The decedent's parents and siblings, respectively, are next in line of priority, etc.) If it turns out that there are no heirs, the property goes to the State of California.

Sometimes heirs and beneficiaries are the same people, and sometimes they are different. One of the important areas where this is relevant is for purposes of notice of estate administration. Even if someone is not named in a will or trust, if they are an heir, they are entitled to receive notice of the estate administration. For this reason, if you are responsible for administering an estate, it is helpful to know the definitions of terms. They may have legal connotations of which you might not otherwise be aware.

Helix Law Firm can help with probate and trust administration

At Helix Law Firm, we can take the burden of probate or trust administration off your shoulders. We can help make sure the rules are followed, keep up with deadlines, and communicate with beneficiaries and heirs on your behalf. If you are a beneficiary or heir, we can help make sure your interests are protected.

If you're interested in learning more about how Helix can help, please call us at (619) 567-4447 to schedule a free consultation.

About the Author

Michael Guzman

Michael Guzman is a Paralegal at Helix Law Firm. He helps to maintain Helix Law Firm's extraordinary quality of customer service, and assists in the intake of new clients and in communicating with existing clients and vendors. Michael attended the University of San Diego and is a proud Torero.


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