Inheritance: Legal Definition, Administration of Estate, Wills, Intestacy and Tax

What is Inheritance?

Inheritance is the legal process through which assets, rights, debts, and obligations of a deceased person are transferred to their legal heirs or designated beneficiaries.

Inheritance Legal Meaning

It is a concept deeply ingrained in both the social and legal context. Inheritance involves the transfer of property, rights, debts, and obligations from the deceased to their legal heirs or beneficiaries.

Inheritance is governed by a complex web of laws and regulations, which dictate how assets are distributed after someone’s death.

Inheritance - will - intestacy - administration of estate

The Legal Framework of Inheritance in the UK and US

The rules governing inheritance in the UK are primarily outlined in the Wills Act 1837, the Administration of Estates Act 1925, and the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

In the U.S., inheritance law varies by state but generally falls under probate law, guided by individual state statutes and the Uniform Probate Code. Federal law, particularly for taxation, also plays a role, with key legislation including estate tax regulations and laws governing the transfer of assets.

Wills and Intestacy

  • Wills: A legal document where a person specifies how their assets should be distributed after death.
  • Intestacy: If a person dies without a will, their assets are distributed according to the rules of intestacy.

Are There Any Legal Limits To What Can Be Inherited?

Legally, most types of property and assets can be inherited, including real estate, personal property, financial assets, and intellectual property rights. However, certain items cannot be inherited due to their nature, such as specific licenses, which may be non-transferable and expire upon the holder’s death.

Additionally, legal limits may be imposed on inheriting illicitly obtained assets or property with unclear titles.

In some jurisdictions, laws also restrict or regulate the inheritance of certain wildlife or endangered species items.

Executors and Administrators

  • Executors: Appointed in a will to administer the deceased’s estate.
  • Administrators: Appointed if there’s no will, to handle the estate in line with intestacy rules.

The Process of Administering an Estate

Administering an estate involves several key steps:

  1. Valuation of the Estate: Determining the total value of the deceased’s assets.
  2. Obtaining Grant of Probate or Letters of Administration: Legal authority to administer the estate.
  3. Paying Debts and Taxes: Clearing any debts or taxes owed by the estate.
  4. Distributing the Assets: According to the will or intestacy rules.

How Are Assets Valued For The Purposes Of Inheritance?

For inheritance purposes, assets are typically valued based on their fair market value at the date of the deceased’s death.

Real estate is appraised to determine its current market value. Financial assets like stocks, bonds, and bank accounts are valued based on their current market prices or account balances.

Personal items such as jewellery, art, and collectibles may require professional appraisals to ascertain their market value. For businesses or complex investments, specialised valuation methods may be employed.

Taxation and Inheritance

Inheritance tax is a significant aspect of inheritance law.

  • Threshold and Rates: The tax is levied on estates valued over a certain threshold, with specific rates applied.
  • Exemptions and Reliefs: Certain exemptions are available, such as assets passed to a spouse or civil partner.

How Is Inheritance Tax Calculated And Applied?

Inheritance tax, where applicable, is calculated based on the value of the assets inherited. The tax rate and exemptions vary depending on the jurisdiction and the relationship between the deceased and the beneficiary. Typically, the estate’s value is assessed, and any debts or liabilities are subtracted.

The remaining value is subject to taxation, with rates often escalating based on the estate’s size.

Close relatives usually benefit from higher exemptions or lower tax rates, while distant relatives or unrelated beneficiaries might face higher rates. Some jurisdictions offer complete exemptions for spouses or children.

Family and Dependants

Certain individuals may have legal rights to the estate, regardless of the will’s contents.

  • The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 allows certain family members and dependents to claim from the estate if they believe they have not been adequately provided for.

How Does Inheritance Work For Adopted Children Or Stepchildren?

In the context of inheritance, adopted children are generally treated the same as biological children. They have the same legal rights to their adoptive parents’ estate, whether through a will or under intestacy laws.

However, the situation for stepchildren is different. Stepchildren do not automatically have inheritance rights from a stepparent unless specifically named in the will.

Without a will, stepchildren typically do not inherit under intestacy laws unless they were legally adopted by the stepparent.

Are Spouses Automatically Entitled To Inherit?

In many jurisdictions, spouses are generally entitled to inherit a portion of their deceased spouse’s estate, either through the provisions of a will or under intestacy laws if there is no will.

The specific share a surviving spouse is entitled to can vary depending on the jurisdiction’s laws and whether there are other surviving relatives, such as children or parents.

In community property states, spouses may automatically own half of all marital assets. However, the exact rules and entitlements can differ, so it is essential to refer to the specific laws of the relevant jurisdiction.

Common Grounds for Dispute

Inheritance often leads to legal disputes, primarily over the interpretation of wills and the application of intestacy rules.

  • Validity of Wills: Contesting on grounds like lack of mental capacity or undue influence.
  • Claims Against the Estate: By family members or dependants who feel inadequately provided for.

Role of Trusts in Inheritance

Trusts are a common tool in managing and distributing an estate, offering flexibility and tax advantages.

Types of Trusts

  • Discretionary Trusts: Where trustees decide how to use the trust assets.
  • Life Interest Trusts: Providing beneficiaries with income or use of assets for their lifetime.

Can Inheritance Be Donated To A Trust?

Inheritance can be donated to a trust. Beneficiaries may also choose to transfer their inherited assets into a trust for various reasons, including estate planning, tax benefits, or to manage and protect the assets for future generations or specific purposes.

Setting up a trust allows for greater control over how the assets are distributed and used, potentially providing long-term financial stability and ensuring that the benefactor’s wishes are honoured in managing and disbursing the inheritance.

Are Life Insurance Payouts Considered Part Of An Inheritance?

Life insurance payouts are typically not considered part of an individual’s estate for inheritance purposes.

Instead, they are paid directly to the named beneficiaries of the policy, bypassing the probate process.

This direct transfer means that life insurance proceeds usually aren’t subject to the same inheritance taxes and legal processes as other assets in the estate.

However, if the deceased’s estate is named as the beneficiary, or if no beneficiary is designated, the life insurance proceeds may then be included in the estate and treated as part of the inheritance, potentially subjecting them to estate taxes and probate.

Cross-Border Inheritance Issues

With the increasing mobility of individuals, cross-border inheritance issues have become more prevalent.

International Considerations

  • Conflict of Laws: Determining which country’s laws apply to the estate.
  • Tax Implications: Dealing with inheritance tax in multiple jurisdictions.

Digital Assets in Inheritance

The rise of digital assets poses new challenges in inheritance law.

  • Digital Assets: Including online accounts and digital currencies, must be considered in estate planning.


Inheritance in the UK is a multifaceted legal area, encompassing the distribution of assets, tax implications, and the rights of family and dependents.

Navigating this landscape requires a thorough understanding of the legal principles and an awareness of the complexities involved, particularly in cases of cross-border estates or digital assets.

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