The term heir is used within a last will and testament and trusts to designate family members entitled to inheritance property. When decedents do not execute a Will or transfer property to a trust their estate is deemed ‘intestate’ and must be settled according to state probate law.

Direct lineage heir refers to blood relatives such as parents, siblings, and children, as well as the decedent’s spouse. Heirs can also include cousins, aunts and uncles. Individuals who are not directly related to the decedent are referred to as beneficiaries.

Decedents can bequeath inheritance property to whomever they desire. If the estate is considered intestate, property normally transfers only to direct lineage heirs. If a Will or trust is in place, property is gifted according to directives provided in the document.

Heirs can be named as beneficiaries on bank accounts, life insurance policies, financial portfolios, retirement accounts, and certain types of titled property such as real estate. Although somewhat confusing, heirs can be beneficiaries, but beneficiaries are not always heirs.

The last will and testament is one of the most important elements of estate planning. Wills are used to bequeath property, appoint an estate administrator, establish guardianship for minor children, and provide directives regarding burial preferences. Wills are also an important element of establishing a trust. Without a Will, distribution of assets is determined by state probate law.

Unless a trust is established, all estates must undergo the probate process. Probate is required to settle outstanding debts, transfer property to heirs and beneficiaries, notify government entities regarding the decedent’s death, pay estate taxes, and file a final tax return.

Estates with a valid Will are referred to as ‘testate’ estates. Those without a Will are ‘intestate’ estates. Testate estates normally pass through probate more quickly than intestate estates. The time required to settle probate estates depends on the type of inheritance property involved, court caseload, and family dynamics.

If heirs agree to the terms of the Will, the probate process can usually be completed within a few months. The average time-frame to settle intestate estates is 6 to 9 months. If claims are submitted against the estate, probate can be prolonged for several months. When family members disagree over distribution of assets or if an heir contests the Will, probate can be suspended for a year or longer.

Wills can also be used to disinherit a direct lineage heir. While most people do not want to write a person out of their Will, there are instances that warrant this decision. It is best to work with a probate attorney to ensure the disinheritance clause is compliant with state law and to minimize the potential for the disinherited heir to contest the Will.

When a Will is contested, the probate process is prolonged as the court determines who is rightfully entitled to inheritance property. Contesting a Will can be very detrimental to the estate; particularly if estate value is less than $100,000.

Strategies exist which can minimize the time required to settle estates. It is best to work with a professional estate planner to ensure property is protected and to ease transfer of inheritance assets.

Beneficiaries can be assigned to checking and savings accounts by filling out ‘Payable on Death’ forms where funds are held. Account holders can bequeath funds to as many beneficiaries as they desire. Heirs cannot access bank accounts until they present the death certificate, photo I.D, and validated ‘date of death’ forms provided by the estate executor.

Beneficiaries can also be assigned to financial portfolios and retirement accounts by assigning ‘Transfer on Death’ beneficiaries. Heirs can elect to transfer accounts into their own name to avoid inheritance tax, or accept lump sum cash which may be subject to taxation.

Titled property can be gifted to heirs by assigning beneficiaries via the property title. Each state has different requirements for bequeathing titled property. Some require obtaining a joint title, while others allow designation of beneficiaries. To ensure property is distributed according to your wishes, consult with a probate lawyer or estate planner to determine proper protocol.

Engaging in estate planning is one of the greatest gifts anyone can leave their loved ones. It is important to update Wills when major changes occur. These might include opening or closing a business; buying or selling real estate; or when a designated heir dies or an heir is born.