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What is the difference between heirs and beneficiaries?

On Behalf of | Dec 14, 2023 | Estate Planning

Estate planning involves a lot of decision-making, and one of the most important decisions you’ll need to make is who receives your assets when you pass them on. This is where the two terms, heirs and beneficiaries, come in.

You have probably noticed that many people use these terms interchangeably and might have assumed that they mean the same thing. While both terms refer to people who may inherit part of your estate, you should be aware of important legal differences between these two terms.

Who is an heir?

Heirs are individuals who inherit the assets of a deceased person by virtue of their familial relationship. These connections are typically established through blood ties or legal adoption. Inheritance laws dictate the distribution of assets among heirs when an individual passes away without a will. The laws outline a hierarchy of heirs, prioritizing close relatives such as spouses, children and parents. When a person dies intestate, meaning without a valid will, the legal system steps in to determine one’s rightful heirs.

Who is a beneficiary?

Unlike heirs, beneficiaries are individuals specifically designated to receive assets from a deceased person’s estate through a legal document, commonly a will or a trust. Beneficiaries can include family members, friends or even organizations, depending on an individual’s preferences. Wills and trusts provide a detailed roadmap for asset distribution, allowing for a more personalized and intentional allocation of wealth.

One significant advantage of designating beneficiaries is the flexibility and control it can afford an individual. Unlike the predetermined distribution outlined by inheritance laws, choosing beneficiaries enables a tailored approach, considering unique family dynamics and personal preferences.

In a nutshell, while heirs inherit assets by legal entitlement, beneficiaries are chosen and designated by the individual, potentially affording greater control and personalization.

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