Inheritance Law in the UK: Rules of inheritance explained

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Between the Inheritance Act 1975, the rules of intestacy, and testamentary freedom and wills, it can be difficult to understand how inheritance law in the UK works compared to other countries.

To help you learn more about inheritance rules in the UK and how they might impact you and your family in the event of a death, the expert solicitors at Freeman Jones have put together this comprehensive guide.

Below, we explain everything from how the rules of intestacy determine inheritance and next of kin to the sibling inheritance laws in the UK following the passing of a loved one.

Who has the right of inheritance?

Unlike other countries inheritance laws that enforce ‘forced heirship’ (where a portion of the deceased’s estate is automatically passed to their protected heirs, regardless of the deceased’s wishes,) inheritance rules in the UK stipulate that you can leave your assets or ‘estate’ to any individual or organisation you desire.

To do this, you will need to make a valid will which explains how you want your money, property, and possessions to be handled by your chosen executor. If you create a clear and valid will, then you can choose who inherits what.

Without a will, however, determining who has the right of inheritance can be more complicated.

What is the order of inheritance in the UK?

In the UK, if an individual doesn’t make a will or does make a will, but that will is not considered to be legally valid, then the rules of intestacy will determine the order of inheritance.

These rules are applicable to ‘intestate’ persons and vary depending on a range of factors. This includes the location of the deceased’s permanent home, whether the deceased has a living spouse or civil partner, and when the deceased passed.

If you’d like a more accurate idea of who could be entitled to a share of the deceased’s money, property, and possessions under the rules of intestacy, we recommend answering a few key questions put together by the government.

Based on your specific combination of answers, you’ll be provided with advice as to the best route forward. In some cases, you’ll be advised to seek legal support to help you work out the value of the deceased’s estate before it can be shared among the beneficiaries.

Generally, however, if there is no surviving spouse or civil partner, then the person who is next of kin inherits the estate.

Who is your next of kin legally in the UK?

While there’s no real legal definition for the term, typically, someone’s next of kin is their closest living relative. This individual also tends to be the deceased’s ‘emergency contact’ and in many cases they will have the most inheritance rights and obligations.

Despite there being no clear legal rules of who you can appoint to be your next of kin, the appointed individual is often the person you have the closest relationship with, such as your spouse, civil partner, or long-term partner.

As a result, your next of kin isn’t always blood-related, but they can be, especially if you aren’t married, haven’t entered into a civil partnership, or don’t have a long-term partner. While there are no laws surrounding who you can name as your next of kin, there are set rules when it comes to who is responsible for handling the deceased’s affairs when they pass.

If there is no will, or if the will is invalid or doesn’t name an executor, then the intestacy rules will determine who can apply to the administrator of the estate. Generally, the next of kin order starts with your spouse or civil partner, then your children (biological and adopted), parents, siblings, and grandparents.

In the event that there are no surviving siblings, nieces, or nephews of the deceased, then half-brothers and sisters will be the next of kin. If you’re unsure who is next of kin for your recently deceased loved one, it’s often worth contacting an experienced solicitor.

What happens if someone dies without relatives?

If the deceased has no surviving relatives at all after 12 years of attempting to trace potential relatives, then the estate passes to the Crown.

Handled by the Treasury Solicitor, this is known as ‘Bona Vacantia’ which refers to the process of ownerless property or goods going to the Crown.

While the Crown will become the legal owner of the deceased’s money, property, and possessions after 12 years, claims for part of the estate can be made for up to 30 years after the deceased’s passing with no interest.

Does next of kin automatically inherit?

The next of kin doesn’t always automatically inherit. This is because if there’s no will, then you will often need to prove your relationship to the deceased and the lack of any closer next of kin.

To do this, you may need to provide document evidence in the form of your birth or marriage certificate. Other documentation showing the deceased has no surviving spouse or civil partner (in the form of a death certificate) may also be required to substantiate your claim as next of kin.

Do children have a right to inherit?

If the deceased has no surviving spouse or civil partner and no valid will, then their children will inherit their whole estate as per the rules of intestacy.

However, if there is a surviving spouse or civil partner, then the child will only inherit if the value of the estate is more than £322,000. For those with more than one child (regardless of which relationship the child is from), the children will inherit an equal share of the value of the estate above £322,000.

Alongside biological children, adopted children, including stepchildren that have been adopted by their stepparent, also have the right to inherit under the rules of intestacy.

It’s important to bear in mind, however, that next of kin must be at least 18 years old to inherit any share of the estate. If they are under 18 years old, then they will need a parent, trustee, or legal guardian to make decisions on their behalf to manage their inheritance.

Should the eldest child be next of kin?

In the UK, there is a widely-held belief that the eldest child of the deceased is the next of kin if there is no surviving spouse or civil partner and no will. However, for intestate individuals, the sibling inheritance laws in the UK clearly state that the estate should be divided equally between all of the deceased’s children.

Can a parent leave everything to one child in the UK?

Put simply, yes, a parent can leave all their money, property, and possessions to just one child, if desired. This is because we have ‘complete testamentary freedom’ in the UK which means individuals have the freedom to leave their estate to anyone they choose as stipulated in their will.

Some parents may even decide to disinherit certain children in their will to ensure none of their assets are left to them upon their death. They have no legal obligation to leave any money, property, or possessions to any family member or any other individual, so leaving everything to one child is a possibility.

Who is not allowed to inherit?

There is a common misconception in the UK that cohabitating, or ‘common-law’, partners of the deceased are entitled to inherit regardless of whether they don’t leave a will or the will is invalid.

However, inheritance, as per the intestacy rules, dictates that surviving unmarried partners or partners not in a civil partnership with the deceased have no right to a share of the deceased’s money, property, or possessions.

This is because unmarried couples do not benefit from the same legal rights that are given to those that are either married or in a civil partnership. As a result, if you want to ensure that your long-term partner is allowed to inherit from your estate, then you will need to make a valid will that expressly outlines these wishes.

Can a beneficiary lose their inheritance?

There are various ways that a beneficiary (any individual or organisation) that has been named in a will to inherit money, property, or possessions can lose their inheritance.

For example, one way that a beneficiary will lose their right to inherit is if they’ve acted as a witness to the signing of the will. While this won’t affect the validity of the will, it will prevent any inheritance from being passed to the beneficiary.

A beneficiary might also lose their inheritance, either partially or completely, if the estate doesn’t have sufficient funds to satisfy the deceased’s outstanding debts.

This is because all these financial obligations must be fulfilled first before any money, property, or possessions can be given to the beneficiaries as per the will. Concerned about how much you’re likely to inherit from a loved one? Simply carry on reading to discover how the Inheritance Act 1975 could help.

What is the Inheritance Act 1975 legislation?

The Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act 1975 (more commonly known as the Inheritance Act 1975) is a legal act of Parliament which determines who can make a claim for financial provision from a deceased person’s estate.

This Act extended on the Inheritance (Family Provision) Act 1938 and has since been amended by other legislation, such as the Equality Act 2010, to take into account various changes to the law including civil partnerships.

This legislation describes the Act as ‘an Act to make fresh provision for empowering the court to make orders for the making out of the estate of a deceased person of provision for the spouse, former spouse, child, child of the family or dependant of that person; and for matters connected therewith.’

Put simply, this Act allows certain individuals to make a claim where either the deceased’s will or the rules of intestacy has left them without “reasonable financial provision”. This includes them being left out of the will or not having been provided for adequately in the will.

Who can claim under the Inheritance Act 1975?

Individuals that are able to make a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975 include:

  • The deceased’s spouse or civil partner
  • The deceased’s former spouse or civil partner – as long as they haven’t formed a subsequent marriage or civil partnership
  • Any individual that lived with the deceased for at least two years before they passed
  • The deceased’s children – including those over 18 years old
  • Any individual that was not a child of the deceased, but was treated as such including adopted, fostered, and step children
  • Any individual (not mentioned above) that was being maintained either completely or partly by the deceased immediately before their death

Should you make a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975?

If you are simply unhappy with your share of inheritance, then making a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975 may not be your best option. However, if you are a surviving spouse or civil partner of the deceased that has been left struggling financially as a result of your partner’s death, then you could have a significant claim.

To find out whether you should make a claim, it’s always best to contact an experienced wills, probate, and inheritance law solicitor. Once they have an understanding of your specific circumstances, they can advise as to whether making a claim under the Inheritance Act 1975 is appropriate.

Contact expert inheritance dispute solicitors

Keen to learn more about how inheritance law in the UK works? Regardless of whether you want to find out more about the rules of inheritance or you have a specific claim in mind, please don’t hesitate to contact the experienced team of inheritance dispute solicitors at Freeman Jones today.

Our inheritance dispute services include handling disputes between beneficiaries and executors, providing support with both proprietary and promissory estoppel claims, and defending contested wills to ensure the deceased’s wishes are fairly carried out as desired.

Our in-depth knowledge in this specialised area also ensures we can handle even niche inheritance disputes with ease. No matter whether you require mediation, negotiation, or even court proceedings to achieve the inheritance you’re entitled to, we can help.

With offices dotted across the North West of the UK, including popular areas like Chester, Liverpool, Warrington, and Wrexham, you’re never too far from a Freeman Jones branch. Why not pop in and see whether you have an inheritance claim worth pursuing?

Not living nearby? To find out more about the inheritance laws near you or our inheritance dispute services and fees, simply contact our knowledgeable team today by calling 01244 506 444 or sending your enquiry via email to

Alternatively, to book your free, no-obligation, 20-minute consultation with one of expert solicitors, you can also fill in and submit our convenient online contact form.


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Author Colin Freeman View Profile
Colin qualified as a solicitor in 1998. He specialises predominantly in family law, litigation / dispute resolution, wills, probate and settlement agreements and has notable cases reported in the Court of Appeal and High Court.
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