What does next of kin mean?

The closest living blood relative has the right to inherit when a person dies intestate

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Elissa SuhSenior Editor & Disability Insurance ExpertElissa Suh is a disability insurance expert and a former senior editor at Policygenius, where she also covered wills, trusts, and advance planning. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, CNBC, PBS, Inverse, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and more.

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Your next of kin is the closest family member related to you by blood that is still alive, though if you have a surviving spouse, they are most likely your next of kin. They are followed by your children if you have any, according to a hierarchy dictated by state laws. Who counts as next of kin is not universal. Other countries may or may not have laws in place.

Next of kin laws are most important when someone hasn’t made their estate plan or made the details of it known to others. Next of kin have a legal right to inherit when a family member dies without a will, and in some states they even have the authority to make medical decisions when there is no power of attorney in place. Registered domestic partners may have some of the same rights as a surviving spouse, including the right to inherit when there is no will, but it depends on the state.

Key takeaways

  • Next of kin have the right to inherit when a family member dies intestate.

  • An unmarried partner only has the legal right to inherit property in certain states when their partner dies without a will.

Who is next of kin?

Next of kin are your surviving family members. They are usually divided into groups or tiers based on how closely they are related to you by blood. A child and grandchild are closer relatives than a cousin, for example. Adopted children are typically treated the same as biological children under state laws. A surviving spouse’s blood relations are not your next of kin, unless you have legally adopted them as part of your family.

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Order of next of kin

  • Spouse

  • Children

  • Parents

  • Siblings

  • Grandchildren

    • Grandparents

    • Aunts and uncles

    • Nieces and nephews

    • Great-grandchildren

      • Great-grandparents

      • Great aunts and uncles

      • First cousins

      • Grand-nieces and nephews

Next of kin and inheritance laws

When someone dies intestate, or without a last will and testament, a court of law decides who gets an inheritance. A decedent’s next of kin has the right to inherit the estate, with closer relatives having a greater claim than more distant ones. How exactly an inheritance is distributed among next of kin depends on an individual state’s intestate succession laws.

If you want to pass assets onto someone who isn’t related to you by blood at all, it’s especially important to get a will, since they won’t be able to inherit otherwise. Even if you want your next of kin to get everything, a will can still be helpful to ensure the proper people receive your things.

→ Learn about what happens if you die without a will

When your next of kin matters

Next of kin laws usually only come into play when a person dies without making their end of life preferences legally known, as when they die without estate planning documents. Here are a few common responsibilities of the next of kin:

  • File for probate when someone dies without a will

  • Make funeral arrangements if a decedent didn’t make any

  • Make medical decisions if there’s no advance directive

File for probate

When the decedent dies without a will, the next of kin usually has priority when it comes to initiating probate (the process during which a court will determine the deceased’s legal heirs) or filing for a small estate affidavit. Next of kin are typically given priority as personal administrator as well. The administrator or executor manages the deceased’s estate and disburses the assets to the proper heirs.

You can appoint an estate executor when you write a will; read more about the duties of an executor.

Make funeral arrangements

If the deceased did not include burial instructions or choose someone to handle the disposition of remains, the next of kin becomes responsible for these decisions. Next of kin can decide whether the deceased is buried or cremated.

If you already have a plan, you can state funeral instructions in your letter of instruction, an informal document that covers your preferences and wishes.

Make medical decisions

A healthcare proxy and advance directive (also known as a living will) grants someone the legal authority to make medical decisions on your behalf when you become incapacitated. Without these documents, most states allow your next of kin to make these decisions. Note that when the decedent’s next of kin is a child, only an adult child who has reached the age of the majority would be granted this authority.

You can specify your wishes for end-of-life medical care in a living will and elect someone to carry out the terms with a durable power of attorney (POA).

Are domestic partners next of kin?

The rights of unmarried partners, including a registered domestic partner or civil partner, vary by state and according to your circumstances. Registered domestic partners are entitled to many of the same rights afforded to spouses in certain situations, like receiving health insurance benefits, making funeral arrangements, or even suing for wrongful death. When it comes to property, though, a domestic partner may not have the same inheritance rights under intestate law as a spouse would, depending on the state. To make sure an unmarried partner receives your assets or possessions when you die, make sure you write a will as part of your estate plan.

→ Learn more about wills and estate planning for singles

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