Am I a beneficiary or an heir? What’s the difference?


Q. My aunt’s will has named me and my brothers and sisters as her heirs since my mom, her cousin, passed away. A lawyer just contacted me to say that my aunt died six months ago. We are confused because the lawyer said we are heirs but we are not beneficiaries. We don’t know what that even means or who the beneficiaries are. The lawyer says we have to sign off on the will to release the funds to the beneficiaries but we don’t know who it is. None of this makes sense to us. Can we protest anything? Can we become the executors?
— Confused

A. We’re sorry to hear about your aunt.

Definition matter here.

An heir is a person who is legally entitled to inherit assets if the deceased individual does not have a valid will or a trust, said Shirley Whitenack, an estate planning attorney with Schenck, Price, Smith & King in Florham Park.

Heirs are spouses and blood relatives, she said.

A beneficiary is a person who is named in a will or a trust to receive assets upon the death of the person who owns the assets. Beneficiaries may or may not be related to the deceased person, Whitenack said.

“The executor of the will is required to send the heirs who qualify as next-of-kin a notice of probate of the will even if they have not been named as beneficiaries,” she said. “The next-of-kin are also entitled to request a copy of the will from the executor.”

The executor and successor executors are designated by the will, Whitenack said.

“The reader and his or her siblings cannot become the executors unless they are able to prove that they have a pecuniary interest in the assets, that the executor breached his or her fiduciary duty and that no other successor executors have been designated in the will,” she said. “An application to challenge a will must be made within four months after the probate of the will if the aggrieved party lives in New Jersey or within six months if the aggrieved party is a non-resident of New Jersey.”

The court can generally extend those periods for a maximum of 30 days, she said.

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This story was originally published on Aug. 25, 2023. presents certain general financial planning principles and advice, but should never be viewed as a substitute for obtaining advice from a personal professional advisor who understands your unique individual circumstances.