Call Now!
February 05, 2024

What’s The Difference Between an Heir and a Beneficiary?

Do you need help planning your estate in the St. Louis area? The Law Office of David S. Schleiffarth, LLC can help you understand the difference between the various legal terms associated with estate planning, and walk you through the estate planning process whether you need help writing a will, establishing a trust, or something else entirely. Call our office today at 314-448-0527 or fill out our online contact form for a consultation.

When discussing estate law topics such as trusts and wills, many people use the terms “heir” and “beneficiary” interchangeably, not realizing that they are two similar but distinct titles that hold unique roles and carry different legal responsibilities and benefits. Whether you are someone who’s planning their estate or someone inheriting property or real estate through probate, it’s important to understand the differences these two terms, and how they apply to you or your estate planning process.

The Law Office of David S. Schleiffarth, LLC located in St. Louis, MO, holds an A+ from the Better Business Bureau and has worked firsthand with families for many years to create airtight estate plans for the generations to come. Call our office today at 314-448-0527 or fill out our online contact form. We look forward to talking with you.

Types Of Heirs

Generally speaking, an heir is someone who is assumed to receive titles, property, or land based on their relationship to the deceased person or their estate. Defining who is and who isn’t an heir typically becomes more important when there isn’t an established will because their inheritance is implied – but not legally binding.

For example, in accordance with intestacy laws, when a person passes away and they haven’t written a will, their property is typically passed to their next of kin, typically family members. The very first in line is usually referred to as a direct heir.

In Missouri, that means your property will first go to your spouse. If no surviving spouse exists, it will then go to a descendent (children or grandchildren, including adopted children) if you have them. If you don’t have children, your property gets passed on to your parents if they’re living, or siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins if they’re not. These types of heirs are known as collateral heirs – heirs who are blood relatives but aren’t descendants.

However, this is only the case if no will exists, also called “intestate succession”. If you’ve written a legally binding will, your property will be passed on to the beneficiaries that you’ve named in the will.

Types Of Beneficiaries 

Generally speaking, most beneficiaries (like heirs) are family members with one very important distinction – their inheritance is legally binding and specified in a will or trust. There are a few different types of beneficiaries, and they each have different roles regarding succession:

  • Primary Beneficiary: Primary beneficiaries are the main recipients of the assets or benefits specified in a legal document (usually a will or trust) by the decedent (the person who died). They are typically named directly by the deceased and receive the designated assets as outlined in the estate planning documents.
  • Contingent (or Secondary) Beneficiary: Contingent beneficiaries are secondary recipients who receive assets only if the primary beneficiaries are unable to inherit or refuse their share of the estate. They step in as alternative beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiaries are deceased or cannot fulfill the conditions set forth in the will or trust.
  • Residuary Beneficiary: Lastly, residuaries are the last in line in terms of beneficiaries. Residuary beneficiaries collect estate assets that aren’t assigned to anyone else. There can be infinite amounts of residuary beneficiaries within reason, and they can collect a designated amount of assets if you choose to assign a percentage.

During the probate process (the process through which the estate assets are distributed), the court will look at the beneficiaries named, and determine who holds which titles (if any titles are designated).

Heir vs. Beneficiary: Why does the difference matter?

As our law firm has outlined earlier in this guide, the most important difference between beneficiaries and heirs is the right to inheritance and their specific place in the order of succession.

In virtually every situation, a beneficiary will trump an heir’s right to an estate, because a beneficiary must be named in a legally binding will or trust. 

For the sake of an example, let’s say that Martha intends to leave her estate in the hands of her husband, Bill. As her next of kin, Bill would automatically inherit Martha’s estate in accordance with intestacy law. However, unexpectedly, Martha and Bill pass away a few days apart from each other, and the estate goes to the next line of succession – Martha’s estranged son, Greg, with whom she had no relationship. If Martha had known that Greg was going to inherit her estate, she would have created a will leaving it to her sister as a beneficiary, but unfortunately, it’s too late.

As a law firm specializing in estate law, The Law Office of David S. Schleiffarth, LLC has seen many situations similar to Martha’s and has worked to remedy these problems before they happen. If you need legal advice regarding your estate or assets or drafting a will, there’s no time to waste. Call our office today at 314-448-0527 or fill out our online contact form for a consultation.

Rights Of a Beneficiary Versus Heir In An Estate Administration

The rights of an heir vs a beneficiary are almost identical, however, the ability to enact these rights relies entirely on the existence of a will. If no will exists, then by law, no beneficiaries exist, and thus, the property is divided amongst loved ones (in this context, heirs) who hold these specific rights:

  • The ability to be notified of any decisions made through probate or relating to probate
  • Representation by an estate lawyer
  • Challenging the directives made by probate
  • Claiming assets, given they have a right to said assets

However, if a will does exist, these rights are automatically transferred to the beneficiaries named in the will until all specified assets are distributed. If there are assets left, an unnamed heir may be entitled to it but this can always be contested by a beneficiary through an appeal.

Rights of Heirs In An Estate Administration

You may be wondering if an heir can dispute a beneficiary’s inheritance. Like a beneficiary, an heir also has a right to an appeal, even when a will exists, though their options will be limited. If a will only allocates a specific portion of the estate to the beneficiaries listed in the will, the heirs that are not listed in the will may be entitled to the remaining portion, especially if they are the next of kin. However, if a will makes sweeping directives such as “100% of my estate goes to my husband” then the heir may not have any legal right to any of the estate assets.

Find a Missouri estate lawyer who serves your specific needs

If you’re worried that a loved one may be left out of your will due to the legal rights of either beneficiaries or heirs, or you need help drafting a will or trust in the first place, The Law Office of David S. Schleiffarth, LLC can help you plan an estate that serves your specific needs. Our firm knows that a timely turnaround is important – if you need a new will, or need to make changes to an existing will, we can have a draft or changes made in less than two weeks. Call our office today at 314-448-0527 or fill out our online contact form and we’ll get started!

This article represents the opinion of the author and is intended for educational purposes. This article does not constitute legal advice, nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. One should always consult with an experienced attorney before making estate planning decisions.

Contact Us now

Call, text, or email to speak to an attorney!

Contact Information

Tel: 314-448-0527



75 W Lockwood Ave #1, Webster Groves, MO, 63119, US