A distributee is your legal heir that will inherit your estate, by law, if you do not have a valid will. A distributee may also be referred to as an “heir-at-law” or “next-of-kin.”
What is an heir and who is considered an heir to an estate?
An heir is a person who is legally or biologically related to you and is entitled by law to receive the property or assets from your estate if you do not have a valid will or trust. An heir differs from a beneficiary, as beneficiaries are formally named in a valid will or trust. Heirs to your estate are most often your immediate next of kin, legally adopted children, or less direct relatives such as siblings or cousins.
In New York, distributees are defined under EPTL § 4-1.1 to be (1) your spouse and/or children, (2) your parents, (3) your siblings/nieces and nephews/grandnieces and grandnephews, (4) your grandparents/aunts and uncles/first cousins or (5) your first cousins once-removed.
In New York, when you probate a will, you are required to give notice to a decedent’s distributees. Since distributees are the “natural” heirs of a decedent’s estate, this notice gives them an opportunity to dispute the validity of your will, if they believe there was any wrongdoing.
There could be many reasons why you choose to not leave your estate to your distributees —perhaps your closest living relative is someone whom you have never met, maybe you don’t get along with your family or maybe you simply want to contribute your estate to charity upon your death. Whatever the reason, it is important to speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure your wishes are documented and the proper steps are taken now, to avoid time delays and expenses after death.