FAQ: What is a Distributee? What is an Heir at Law?

Definition of DISTRIBUTEE: (noun) / a person entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent under the statutes governing descent and distribution (New York Estates, Powers, & Trusts Law §4-1.1)

A distributee is also often referred to as an “heir-at-law” and is less formally known as “the next of kin”.  When a person dies intestate (without a will) the decedent’s distributees will be the ones entitled to receive the decedent’s assets.

Under New York law, the distributees are determined in the following order:

  1. Spouse and children.  If a decedent leaves a spouse and children, the spouse and children are considered distributees. However, if there is only a spouse and no children, the spouse is the sole distributee.  Conversely, if there are children and no spouse, the children are the distributees.
  2. Parents
  3. Siblings and issue of pre-deceased siblings, if any (nieces and nephews)
  4. Grandparents and issue of predeceased grandparents (1st cousins)
  5. Great-grandparents and issue of predeceased great-grandparents (1st cousins once removed)

Note: “Issue” refers to lineal descendants: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren.

In order to determine the decedent’s distributees, start with number one on the list above and work your way down until you reach a level where at least 1 survivor exists.  The level at which at least 1 survivor exists is the surviving class.  No one at a lower level is considered a distributee.  For example, if the decedent was survived by a person on level 1, such as a spouse or child, then no one on a lower level is considered a distributee, such as a parent, sibling, etc