heir, person designated by law to succeed to the ownership of property of another if that owner does not make a contrary disposition of it by will. A person who takes property left to him by will is not an heir but a legatee. The property that the heir receives is his inheritance. Originally the common law confined the term heir to an inheritor of real estate; the persons to whom the personal property of the deceased went were called the next of kin. The group of heirs of a person may differ from the group that the law recognizes as his next of kin, but the law that dictates the constitution of both is now largely statutory, and in many states of the United States the statutes have abolished all distinction. When title to property is in a living person and his heirs, the meaning is merely that the person has absolute ownership of the property and can do with it what he wishes. No person may be the heir of a living person; the relationship arises only at the death of another. If the other person is still living, the person who may become an heir is called an heir apparent or heir presumptive. An heir presumptive is in the same position as an heir apparent except that his claim may be superseded, as by the birth of one more closely related to the owner. These terms are much used with regard to dynastic succession; an heir apparent is in such connection the undisputed heir to the throne if he survives the incumbent; an heir presumptive is one who will inherit the throne if nothing intervenes—especially the birth of a child to the incumbent.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.