Who is my next of kin?

14 June 2024

Few terms in genealogy are as frequently misunderstood as ”Next of kin”. The phrase is often used colloquially to refer to a person’s nearest blood relative, but the legal definition can be quite different. This can lead to a lot of confusion, especially in the event of a sudden death or serious illness.

We are not solicitors, so cannot give legal advice, but our family history expertise gives us a good understanding of the basics. Here’s a look at some of the common misconceptions, and how you can make sure that the wishes of you and your family are honoured.

What does next of kin mean?

This might sound like a simple question, but the answer isn’t always straightforward. Broadly speaking, the UK has three definitions of next of kin:

  • In the case of a child under 18, next of kin refers to the parent or legal guardian who has the authority to make decisions on their behalf. This is the strictest definition of the term as the law requires every child to have a legally appointed next of kin.
  • The second common usage of the term relates to inheritance rights following a person’s death. In this case, next of kin refers to the person who can legally inherit a deceased person’s estate, and there is a hierarchy prescribed by the State. This only applies in cases where a person has died without making a will.
  • The term is also used more colloquially to refer to an emergency contact. When someone is admitted to hospital, they will be asked to nominate a next of kin who can be contacted with updates on their condition. Unlike the other two definitions, this can be almost anyone. A friend, neighbour or colleague is just as acceptable as a family member.

If I nominate a next of kin in hospital, will they inherit my money?

Many people assume that nominating a next of kin in the hospital means that their money will go to this person in the event of their death. This is not the case.

Nominating a next of kin at the hospital is purely administrative. It dictates who will be notified in the event of your death, but it has no bearing on the distribution of your estate. In most cases, this will be carried out in accordance with your will. If no will is in place, the second definition of next of kin comes into play. This brings us to our next question.

What happens if a person dies without a will?

Dying without a will (or dying “intestate”) is surprisingly common in the UK. 30 million British adults don’t have a will, including one in ten over the age of 75.

When a person dies without a will, the estate is distributed to their next of kin according to a strict hierarchy. The order of inheritance is as follows:

  1. Spouse or civil partner
  2. Children, and/or their descendants
  3. Parents
  4. Siblings, and/or their descendants
  5. Half-siblings, and/or their descendants
  6. Grandparents
  7. Aunts and uncles, and/or their descendants
  8. Half-aunts and uncles, and/or their descendants.

The highest-placed living relative on the list is the legal next of kin. People lower down than them on the list cannot inherit. For example, if you are survived by full-blood siblings, half-siblings and their families are not entitled to a share in the estate. Only people who are the legal next of kin, or their representatives, can apply for probate if there is no will.

These rules can be quite arbitrary, and won’t always reflect the personal wishes of the deceased. If a person is separated from their spouse but not officially divorced, the spouse will inherit the estate. If a person is in a committed relationship that hasn’t been formalised as a marriage or civil partnership, their partner will have no inheritance rights by default. However, they may be able to make a claim against the estate under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975.

These situations can be very distressing for families. Seeing an estranged relative inherit everything at the expense of a beloved family member can create a lot of resentment and stress at an already difficult time. The best way to avoid this situation is to make a will.

Can a person’s next of kin make decisions on their behalf?

Another common misconception is that a person’s next of kin has the power to make financial or medical decisions for them. While this is true in the case of a child’s legal guardian, it’s not the case for adults.

In order to make decisions on someone else’s behalf, a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA) needs to be in place. This gives you the permanent right to make life changing decisions in the event that they become mentally incapable of doing so.

If you have any legal questions regarding next of kin, it’s best to contact a solicitor. If you’ve hit a dead end in your family history journey, talk to our experts today and we’ll get you back on track.

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