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Beneficiary Vs. Heir: What Is The Difference?


During probate, people often use the terms “heirs” and “beneficiaries” interchangeably because, on the surface, these two terms seem like they have the same meaning. Indeed, both heirs and beneficiaries are inheritors of a decedent’s estate. However, in probate, each term has a distinct legal definition. It is crucial to know the difference between heirs and beneficiaries because not understanding the difference between the two can cause confusion and unnecessary complications during the probate process.

In this article, we will look at the difference between “beneficiaries” and “heirs”.

Who Is a Beneficiary?

In a Florida probate matter, a “beneficiary” is an individual specifically named in a decedent’s will and has the right to receive assets transferred through the decedent’s will. A beneficiary can be anyone, or even an entity, such as a trust or charitable organization. A beneficiary does not have to be a family member.

Who Is an Heir?

On the other hand, Florida law defines an “heir” as any individual who is entitled under the state’s intestate succession laws to the property of a decedent. This means that the term “heirs” applies in a situation where an individual dies without a will. Unlike the case with beneficiaries, heirs are usually relatives of the decedent.

In Florida, when a person dies intestate, meaning they died without leaving behind a valid will, their assets are divided among heirs according to the state’s intestate succession laws. Intestate succession generally follows a “flowchart”, awarding assets according to the parties’ relationship to the decedent. Usually, the decedent’s surviving spouse is “first in line”. However, the share a surviving spouse receives is dependent on the existence of any surviving descendants of the decedent, as well as the relationship of any existing descendants to the decedent. According to Florida Statute 732.102, if, for example, there are no surviving descendants of the decedent, the surviving spouse obtains the whole intestate estate. However, if, for example, the decedent had children from a prior marriage, then the surviving spouse obtains half of the estate. The other half goes to the decedent’s children.

Florida statute 732.103 gives guidelines on how the estate should be divided in case the decedent has no living spouse or children and didn’t have a will in place. For instance, if there is no descendant, the intestate estate not passing to the surviving spouse or the entire estate passes to the decedent’s mother and father equally, or to their survivors.

Who Has the Greater Right to an Estate?

Simply put, legally expressed wishes always take precedence. This means that if there is a will, beneficiaries will have the first right to a decedent’s estate assets. On the other hand, if a will is non-existent, or invalid, estate assets will be distributed according to the predetermined statutory order.

In conclusion, you should note that if a surviving spouse is not included in a decedent’s will, certain circumstances entitle them to a part of the decedent’s estate. For example, if a decedent disinherited their estranged spouse before they died but did not legally divorce them, the surviving spouse may be entitled to 30% of the decedent’s estate. This is known as “elective share.”

Contact a Fort Lauderdale Probate Attorney

Do you have any questions or need assistance with the Florida probate process? If so, contact an experienced Fort Lauderdale probate attorney at Joyce A. Julian, P.A. today.

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