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When speaking about wills, the terms “heirs” and “beneficiaries” are often brought up, discussed – and confused. In fact, many individuals use the terms “heirs” and “beneficiaries” interchangeably. However, these two terms refer to two distinct groups of people. Understanding the difference between heirs and beneficiaries enables you to better understand what you can – and cannot – accomplish through an estate plan.

Who are My Heirs

An heir is an individual who stands to inherit a portion or all of your estate after your death because that person is identified as an heir under the Ohio Statute of Descent and Distribution. Generally an heir has a close blood relationship with you that the law recognizes. An heir would be entitled to your probate estate (or a portion thereof) if you died without a will or if your will did not identify a beneficiary who was to receive a distribution from your estate. Heirs include your spouse and your children, if they survive you.

Beneficiaries, then, includes “everyone else” that stands to receive property from your estate pursuant to the terms of your will. Beneficiaries might include distant relatives, caretakers, friends, charitable institutions, and other similar individuals or entities. Unlike heirs, beneficiaries would not normally receive any portion of your estate if you were to die without a will. The only way a beneficiary receives any assets or property from your estate is through your will.

How the Heir/Beneficiary Distinction Affects Your Estate Plan

Beneficiaries generally have no other legal rights to any part of your estate or assets other than any rights you affirmatively create through the terms and provisions of your will. So, for example, you may choose to contribute $10,000 from your estate to a favorite charity as part of your estate plan. If you later changed your mind and decided that you no longer wanted to provide that bequest to that particular charity, the charity would have no other legal rights to the $10,000 or any other part of your estate that it could assert.

Heirs are different, however. As a practical matter, you cannot disinherit your surviving spouse or prevent your surviving spouse from obtaining part of your estate. If your will omits your spouse or specifically disinherits your spouse, Ohio law allows your spouse to elect to take his or her inheritance provided by Ohio law against the will. This means that your surviving spouse could receive half of your probate estate or whatever portion he or she would be entitled to if you had not created a will. This same principle does not hold true for minor children.

(Note, though, that you may be able to disinherit adult children in some circumstances so long as you explicitly and specifically indicate that you are disinheriting the child.)

Contact an Ohio Estate Planning Lawyer Today

At the Law Office of John C. Grundy, our experienced and knowledgeable Ohio estate planning attorneys are here to help you achieve the disposition of your estate and assets that you desire upon your death. We can help you understand what is legally permissible to do and what you are not able to do and help ensure the people you want to benefit are provided for under your estate plan. Contact us at (330) 637-9030 or complete our online contact form to discuss your situation and goals with a member of our legal team.