Legal Insurance

What Is Next of Kin in Estate Planning?

4 min read
Mar 28, 2023

Less than half of Americans have a will, which means if they die without one, their affairs are left to the next of kin.1

The next of kin is often responsible for settling the deceased’s personal finances and making funeral arrangements.

Let’s dig deeper into what next of kin means, the rights and responsibilities, and what goes to whom if someone dies without a will.

What does next of kin mean?

Next of kin means the next closest living blood relative, such as children, spouses, and adopted children.2 When determining next of kin, some state laws vary on stepchildren and may depend on whether they were legally adopted by the deceased.

When someone dies intestate — meaning they didn't have a will or inheritance plan in place — the next of kin is determined in probate court to establish who’s first to receive the inheritance from the decedent's estate. This is in accordance with the intestate succession statute of the state they lived in.3

If someone dies intestate and is neither married nor has living children, the next of kin will move to the parents and then the “collateral heirs.” These can include:

  • Siblings
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles
  • Nieces and nephews

When the next of kin is a minor, they receive the inheritance, but it goes to a conservatorship, which controls the assets until the child comes of age.

What are next of kin rights and responsibilities?

When someone dies intestate or becomes medically incapacitated, their next of kin take responsibility for making decisions on their behalf related to their inheritance and medical decisions.

Let’s explore these, and other obligations, in more detail.

  • Make medical decisions: If there’s no will or healthcare directive, the next of kin’s role is to decide on medical treatments, surgical procedures, and end-of-life care.
  • File for probate: To fulfill their duties, the next of kin must file for probate to gain the legal authority to manage the deceased's estate, pay off any debts, and distribute all of their assets.
  • Plan funeral arrangements: It’s typically the next of kin’s responsibility to make funeral plans and cover the costs.

Next of kin may also inherit digital assets and obligations.

While the next of kin plays a crucial role in managing the deceased's affairs, it's important to understand that they might also have to inherit debt. In certain cases where the deceased's estate is insufficient to clear outstanding balances, creditors may sometimes require that the next of kin clears these debts. Understanding the responsibilities associated with inheriting debt can significantly impact the next of kin as they navigate the complexities of estate management and probate procedures.

Proving next of kin

When someone dies, establishing next of kin is critical. Timely decisions need to be made for funeral arrangements and financial responsibilities since those details aren’t decided without a will.

To establish their legal rights and begin planning the next steps, next of kin must prove their relationship to the deceased. They’ll need to provide an affidavit, which is a notarized legal document that establishes their relationship.

Once this is complete, the next of kin will receive a letter of testamentary from the probate court. This gives them the executive powers to act on the estate’s behalf.

Insurance and retirement plans

Assets like property and bank accounts require a will or next of kin to determine who inherits them, while life insurance and retirement plan payouts aren’t determined by either. Instead, these accounts go to the beneficiaries listed on the plans – regardless of any bequests.

Insurance and retirement plans may also have other inheritance rules that could apply. It’s important to note the 2019 SECURE Act recently modified IRA inheritance disbursement rules, for example.4

Planning can help

You may want to consider getting ready for the future by preparing a will and estate planning. A lawyer can help guide you through this process and help make sure everything meets legal requirements. Legal insurance is one way to access attorneys who can help with the legal process. They can draft and review documents, consult, or represent clients in court. Employers may offer this type of legal insurance as part of a workplace benefits package.

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1 “How Many Americans Have a Will?” Gallup

2 “Next of kin” Cornell Law School

3 “Intestate Succession” Cornell Law School

4 “2019 SECURE Act” Congress

This article is intended to provide general information about insurance. It does not describe any Metropolitan Life Insurance company product or feature.