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What are “heirs”, “legatees”, “beneficiaries”, and “devisees”?

In the realm of estate planning and administration, several terms describe individuals entitled to receive assets or benefits from a decedent’s estate. Let’s explore the meanings of heirs, legatees, beneficiaries, and devisees to gain a deeper understanding of estate terminology:

1. Heirs:

Heirs are individuals who inherit assets from a decedent either by law or through intestate succession when there is no valid will. In North Carolina, heirs-at-law are determined by statutes that dictate the distribution of assets in the absence of a will. Common heirs include spouses, children, parents, siblings, and other close relatives.

2. Legatees:

Legatees are individuals or entities named in a decedent’s will to receive specific gifts or bequests, known as legacies. Unlike heirs who inherit assets through intestate succession, legatees receive assets according to the terms outlined in the decedent’s will. Legacies can include cash, real estate, personal property, or any other assets designated by the decedent.

3. Beneficiaries:

Beneficiaries are individuals or entities entitled to receive benefits from a trust, life insurance policy, retirement account, or other contractual arrangements upon the death of the account holder or policyholder. Unlike heirs and legatees, beneficiaries are not necessarily determined by state law or the terms of a will but are designated by the account holder or policyholder when establishing the arrangement.

4. Devisees:

Devisees are individuals or entities named in a decedent’s will to inherit real property, such as land or buildings. The term “devise” refers specifically to the gift of real estate made in a will. Devisees receive the devised property according to the terms specified in the will, which may include conditions or restrictions set forth by the decedent.


In summary, understanding the distinctions between heirs, legatees, beneficiaries, and devisees is essential for navigating estate planning and administration effectively. Whether inheriting assets through intestate succession, specific bequests in a will, or designated beneficiaries in contractual arrangements, individuals and entities entitled to receive assets from a decedent’s estate play vital roles in the distribution process.

By clarifying these terms and their significance within the context of estate planning and administration, individuals can ensure that their wishes are carried out effectively and that their loved ones receive the intended benefits according to their estate plans.

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