In general, next of kin means one’s closest living blood relatives. The term has important legal meaning in regard to inheritance rights and medical decisions.
If someone creates a will, they get to decide who will be the beneficiaries of their estate. They can designate any family members as beneficiaries or bypass their family altogether. (Though some states have laws that will not allow you to leave a living spouse out of a will.)
On the other hand, if you do not have a will when you die, which is called dying intestate, then your wishes regarding distribution of property may not be carried out. In this case, the law of the state where you reside will determine the next of kin who will be designated beneficiaries of the estate.
Each state has their own intestate inheritance law regarding next of kin. Typically, the first in line of succession would be a surviving spouse and children. The spouse usually receives the bulk of the estate and the rest is split among the children.
(Keep in mind that adopted children are considered the same as blood relatives for the purpose of next-of-kin distribution.)
What Is the Line of Succession for Next of Kin?
The most common line of succession for an inheritance if there is no surviving spouse or children is as follows:
The line of succession continues on with great-aunts and great-uncles, first cousins, second cousins, and so on. Please check your state law for the exact order. If it is not possible to find any next of kin, then the state takes over the estate.
Who Makes the Decisions?
Once the next of kin is found, an administrator is appointed to oversee the distribution of the estate. Typically, the administrator is a relative, quite often a surviving spouse or child.
Next of kin is also important in regard to medical decisions for someone who is not legally capable of making them on their own. This could be due to physical or mental incapacity, such as a coma, or because the person is a minor.
State laws determine who gets to make the decision if there is not a previously written health care directive. The decision does not fall to the hospital or a doctor.
Most states use this order of succession for medical decisions:
- Adult Child
- Continues on with an order of succession similar to dying without a will
If a next of kin can’t be found, most states will allow the decision to be made by someone with an established relationship to the patient. The person should be willing to act on the patient’s behalf and be comfortable conveying their wishes.