Understanding Next of Kin

We don’t like putting much thought into what will happen after our time on earth is done. However, this is a subject we cannot disregard if we are leaving behind people we care about a lot. For some reason, though, some people die without creating a will or trust. And here is where the next of kin (NOK) concept comes into play.

If a loved one died, and they had named you as their next of kin, you probably have several questions, including your responsibilities in funeral arrangements and legal inheritance rights. We will explain everything you need to know in this post.

What does next of kin mean?

At the most basic level, next of kin refers to members closely related by blood, such as children, parents, and siblings. However, next-of-kin relationships can also be established through marriage or legal means like adoption.

The NOK concept is crucial, particularly in intestate succession when the deceased did not set up a will or trust. State intestacy laws will determine the heirs to an estate and the order of inheritance. If the deceased left behind a spouse, the law prioritizes them in the asset distribution unless they are legally separated.

In case there are no surviving children, parents, spouses, or siblings, states can allow inheritance to the next closest kin. This can include grandparents, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, and even members of the great generations.

The inheritance privileges of stepchildren vary by jurisdiction.

Next-of-kin individuals usually take responsibility for funeral plans after the relative dies.

Please note that next of kin may have a role to play when their relative is still alive. In one common scenario, suppose a person becomes mentally incapacitated after maybe they are involved in an accident. Such a patient cannot make decisions or provide the details needed to facilitate their treatment.

The healthcare providers can consult or identify the next of kin. Hospital staff usually turn to the person listed as an emergency contact on the patient’s medical records. If no records exist, the health care practitioners will reach out to the closest relative of the patient to be the next of kin. The hospital will communicate the patient’s progress and other important decisions through the identified NOK.

What does the next of kin do when someone dies?

When the deceased does not leave a valid will assigning an executor, the next of kin will fill the shoes of an executor. The next of kin is primarily responsible for registering the death and arranging the funeral.

They are entitled to find out if their deceased relative had a funeral plan or life insurance policy to cover funeral expenses. What if the loved one had not taken out any plan or scheme to pay for funeral costs? Legally, whoever signs a contract with the funeral home is required to meet the associated expenses. You can split the funeral bill with siblings and other relatives if possible. Learn more about the costs associated with funerals in this post.

If the next of kin signed the contract but are not financially capable of settling the funeral costs, they can use funds from the estate. Perhaps the easily accessible funds will be in the deceased’s bank account.

Many banks allow customers to name beneficiaries on their payable-on-death or transferrable-on-death accounts. These financial institutions release the funds to the beneficiaries once they get notified of a customer’s death.

If that is not an option, the next of kin can sign a promissory note to the funeral home. However, not all morgues have implemented this policy in place.

Promissory notes are legally binding and helpful when an estate is declared intestate. By intestate, we mean the estate will go through a probate court before assets and funds can be distributed to beneficiaries.

When a family is low on income, and the deceased did not have assets to their name, you may qualify for state and local government assistance.

What rights does a next of kin have legally?

There are no clear roles and responsibilities legally assigned to the next of kin, unlike when the deceased leaves a will or trust.

Generally, though, if an estate is subject to a probate process, the court will need to appoint an administrator to oversee the asset distribution process. The administrator is usually the next of kin.

An administrator will take care of the paperwork to transfer assets based on state intestacy laws. If the deceased had outstanding debts, the administrator would facilitate the settlement. After carrying out all these duties, they will close out the estate.

The administrator may need to obtain a next of kin affidavit to simplify the asset transfer process. The notarized document establishes the persons inheriting estate property.

With the next of kin affidavit alone, you may complete the transfer ownership of some property. However, more documentation is often needed.

What if the next of kin is a minor? 

If the deceased’s NOK is under 18 or 21, depending on the state, they cannot legally own their property until they reach legal age. The state laws will dictate who should receive and manage the estate property on behalf of the minor and to what extent.

The closest next of kin are entitled to priority appointment as the estate executor. In some cases, a more distant relative can also be appointed to control the property.

If the inheritance is valued at usually $20,000 or less, the assets can go to the state’s UTMA or UGMA account on request.

The Uniform Transfers to Minors Act or Uniform Gifts to Minors Act will keep the funds until the legal beneficiary comes of age.

Some states allow the appointed adult relative to transfer the assets to a 529 account, a savings plan with tax benefits. The funds will be used to cover the education fees of the minor.

Some states require court-supervised conservatorships for minor heirs, especially when the inheritance involves significant assets. The probate court gives the appointed conservator (nominated by a petition) the authority to manage the assets.

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Readinform is a Wisconsin based writer for funerals explained. They have come to understand the struggles of death and loss. Through life experience they have gathered the knowledge to help others and answer questions related to the funeral industry. When not writing readyinform focuses on learning new things and exploring the differences society offers.

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