What is Next of Kin?
A person’s next of kin is the person’s closest living relative by blood (though it can also be a spouse or adopted child, legally) — a vital designation for dealing with estates if someone dies without a will or handling medical decisions if a person is incapacitated.
When someone passes away, they leave an estate. Ideally, the person who died leaves behind a will that includes information on their final wishes and how they want their estate divided between their loved ones. In some cases, such as an unexpected illness or accident, people pass away without leaving a will. When that happens, law and custom dictate who inherits the decedent’s estate. Often, the person’s closest living relative by blood, their next of kin, will inherit a large portion of their estate. A spouse or adopted child can also be treated as next of kin, legally. Knowing the next of kin may also be necessary if someone is injured and needs someone else to make medical decisions for them.
Imagine a young man is driving home from work when he loses control of his vehicle and crashes it. The man passes away, leaving behind a modest estate, but no will that his family can use to decide how to divide his estate. Instead, the courts will have to find the man’s next of kin, who will inherit his estate.
Finding a person’s next of kin is like looking for the next branch to reach for when climbing a tree…
When you’re climbing a tree, you move from branch to branch as you ascend, usually moving to the closest available branch whenever possible. When you’re looking for a person’s next of kin, you work similarly, examining the person’s family tree to find their closest living relation.
A person’s next of kin is that person’s closest blood relative (or legal equivalent) who is still alive. For example, a person’s spouse, child, parent, or sibling could all be their next of kin. More distant relations can also be someone’s next of kin if they do not have more immediate family.
Knowing a person’s next of kin is vital because certain rights are imparted to the next of kin. When someone dies without a will, their next of kin inherits the majority, if not all, of their estate. In some situations, your next of kin can have the authority and responsibility to make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated.
If someone passes away without a will, their next of kin inherits the majority of their estate. It’s up to the probate court to determine who becomes the executor of the deceased’s estate. In many cases, the court appoints the next of kin, making them responsible for handling the decedent’s final affairs.
That makes the next of kin responsible for planning a funeral service and burial or cremation. They must also deal with the estate’s creditors and remaining obligations, paying bills and debts out of the estate’s funds. If the state has laws regarding how to distribute funds from the estate of someone who didn’t leave a will, the executor also handles that process. That includes contacting the people set to inherit and transferring funds to their possession.
If someone passes away with a will, the next of kin is a less critical part of the process. The decedent’s should name an executor for their estate as well as the person they want handling their funeral and other final requests.
Where the next of kin often comes into play is if the deceased’s will specifies inheritors for their estate, but excludes their next of kin. Some people in the next of kin line of succession have standing to contest a will. While the law varies from state to state, typically, spouses and children have the standing to contest a will. Anyone else who would have inherited had there not been a will can also challenge the will. If the deceased’s next of kin believes they were unfairly excluded from the will, they can contest the will and make a case for why they should inherit a portion or all of the estate.
A person’s next of kin is their closest living blood relative. To find the closest relative, you can look at a family tree to get a sense of how closely you’re related.
In the United States, the order of precedence for determining next of kin is:
Because you can be equally closely related to different family members, state laws sometimes specify different orders of precedence. For example, some states may place your aunts and uncles before your nieces and nephews, while others will prioritize nephews and nieces.
Your next of kin can be responsible for making medical decisions on your behalf. This usually happens if you are in a hospital and unable to make decisions for yourself because of an emergency that’s left you unconscious. If you haven’t established a medical power of attorney for someone else, the hospital will try to contact your next of kin to make decisions about your care.
Your next of kin may also be responsible for handling your estate after you pass away. If you don’t leave a will, many states default to asking the next of kin to serve as the executor of your estate. That makes them responsible for arranging for your funeral and handling your final bills and debt repayment.
If you pass away and leave a will, but exclude your next of kin from inheriting any part of your estate, your next of kin has the right to contest your will. They can argue that they deserve to inherit a portion of your estate based on their relationship with you.
If someone passes away and leaves plans or arrangements for handling their funeral and burial, the next of kin is not responsible for the funeral. They may be responsible for organizing with the funeral home and the rest of the family, but they are not legally required to pay for the service.
If there is no will or plan for a funeral, the next of kin may elect to arrange a funeral. If they decide not to arrange a funeral, the state follows the next of kin hierarchy to find a living relative who is willing to arrange for the funeral.
In situations where there is no surviving family or next of kin willing to handle funeral arrangements, the state often steps in to ensure the body is disposed of properly.
When someone passes away, they leave behind possessions and assets for their surviving family and loved ones. When someone writes a will, they use that document to describe the belongings each family member (the beneficiaries) should receive.
Wills go through a legal process called probate, which ensures they’re valid and appoints an executor. The executor manages the assets of an estate, such as real estate or an investment portfolio. They also take care of things like paying the decedent’s creditors. Once the estate meets all of its obligations, it pays out to the named beneficiaries. During probate, the next of kin can dispute a will’s validity if they’ve been excluded from inheriting.
When there is no will, the next of kin becomes an essential part of the process. In many states, the next of kin inherits some or all of the estate by default. States also tend to appoint the next of kin as the executor if no executor is named.
Next of kin indicates a familial relationship between two people. You don’t get to choose your next of kin. They’re just the person who is most closely related to you. Power of attorney is a legal concept that grants someone the right to make important medical or legal decisions on your behalf. You can choose to give almost anyone power of attorney, whether they’re related to you or not. You can also choose not to give anyone power of attorney.
If you wind up in a situation where someone needs to make a decision on your behalf while you’re incapacitated, someone with power of attorney can do that. If you have not given anyone power of attorney, some states default to asking your next of kin to make decisions on your behalf.
This means that your spouse or adult child could make important decisions if you’re incapacitated, even if you haven’t given them power of attorney. If you want to designate someone as having power of attorney, you’ll need to work with a lawyer and draw up a legal document.
You can grant power of attorney indefinitely, or you can put an expiration date on the person’s power of attorney. This can be useful if you’re taking part in a high-risk activity and want to plan for the short-term without having to remove the power of attorney in the future.
You may have to prove that you are someone’s next of kin, especially when your relationship to the decedent is complicated. You might also have to provide proof if someone disputes a will. To prove that you’re next of kin, you’ll need to provide proof of your relationship to the deceased. Things like birth certificates and sworn statements from people who knew both you and the decedent could be helpful to prove your relationship.
If you know your family tree or have records that you can use to produce one, drawing up a family tree and bringing it to the court can be beneficial. Include information about the people in the tree, including their dates of birth and death.
Probate courts are used to handling next of kin disputes, so you can also ask for a referral to a probate researcher. These researchers are experienced in finding genealogical information about deceased people. You can work with a probate researcher to gather information about your family and prove your relationship to the decedent.
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