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Understanding the difference between heirs and beneficiaries

On Behalf of | Jan 22, 2021 | Estate Planning

If you’re starting to think about putting an estate plan in place, you’re ahead of the game compared to most Americans. It can be a daunting process, which is why it’s important to have an experienced estate planning attorney guide and advise you.

You’ll be hearing all sorts of new terms as you develop your estate plan. Two that everyone has heard are “heir” and “beneficiary.” You may have used those terms interchangeably over the years. however, they are not the same thing. Let’s look more closely at both of them.

What is an heir?

An heir is a family member of the deceased person who is legally entitled to inherit the deceased person’s assets when the deceased person did not leave a valid last will and testament. This may include a spouse, children, or grandchildren.  If the deceased person does not have any of those family members, it may include parents or grandparents if they’re still alive, or siblings, nieces and nephews.

What is a beneficiary?

A beneficiary is a person or entity specifically named by the owner of an asset (in their estate plan or on the asset or account) to receive that asset when the owner dies.  Beneficiaries can be heirs, of course.

Heirs, spouses, and intestacy

If you die without a will, your assets will be disbursed in accordance with Virginia law; this may not be the result you want.  For example, if you have a child that is not the child of your spouse, the distribution of your assets will include that child, even if you did not want it to.

When you have a will

When you have a properly-drafted will, in most cases, you can leave your assets to whomever you want, including your favorite non-profit organization.  Most people leave their assets to their heirs; however, that is not always required. Typically, spouses can’t be completely disinherited.  Virginia is an “elective share” state. That means if the widow or widower was left nothing in the will, they might have a legal right to “elect” to take a portion of assets.

The best way to be the one who determines where your assets go when you’re no longer around is to have a well-crafted estate plan. An attorney at Bowen Ten Long & Bal, PC can help you put your plan in place and update it as your life and family change over the years.