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Understanding the laws surrounding ‘next of kin’

Naming someone as your next of kin does not automatically make them a beneficiary of your estate when you die, find out why.

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What it means to name a next of kin is something the Life Ledger team gets asked about a lot. It’s a commonly used phrase, and a term we’re all vaguely familiar with, but what does it actually mean?

Is it a legally-binding term? Does it have to be a family member? Does the next of kin automatically inherit everything?

Well, in practice, it’s a lot more complicated than films and TV dramas have led us to believe…

Despite common misconceptions, naming someone as your next of kin does not provide them with any automatic rights to inheritance.

While yes, your next of kin is the person who is (legally speaking) the person who you most wish to represent you and your wishes, this gives them very few legal powers after you have deceased. They can make key decisions on your behalf, but this title does not stand in place of a will.

The legalities behind the process of determining who will inherit your assets are centralised and automatic – i.e. it’s not a situation that’s tailored to the individual.

This means that, without the right measures in place, your wishes could be bypassed, and your next of kin may not actually inherit anything.

Below we share some advice and insight into the process of naming next of kin, including with regards to step-children. Read on to find a guide to the term, the importance of wills, and common (but mistaken) assumptions about naming a next of kin.

Who is your next of kin? 

The term next of kin is a traditional title, given to someone who you are especially close to.

Different countries have different laws regarding kinship. For example, in the U.S., there are legalities defining who would be a person’s next of kin. This is not the case in the UK – in fact, your next of kin doesn’t even have to be a blood relative.

You could name your next of kin as anyone who you have a close relationship with.

This could be: a blood relative (parents, siblings or children are commonly named as next of kin), a partner who you are married to or in a civil partnership with, a partner who you are not in a legal partnership with, a step-child, or even a close friend.

There are no laws governing who you can and cannot name as your next of kin. However, it’s important that you make this decision carefully, and name someone who you trust completely.

What power / rights does my next of kin have? 

It is important to note that in the UK, being named as someone’s next of kin does not give you any legal powers.

As a result, acting as someone’s next of kin is different to being an executor or having power of attorney. This is because, when you are granted power of attorney, you have the legal right to make financial or medical decisions on the patient’s behalf, because they are unable to do so themself.

As a next of kin, you will not get any of these legal rights. However, it is still an important role for a number of reasons. These include, primarily:

  • Caring for any children aged under 18. This is the most important responsibility of the next of kin. If a child under 18 were to be involved in an accident or pass away, then it will be their next of kin who make decisions on their behalf, and/or be responsible for their care.
  • Be the first point of contact when in hospital. This individual will then be contacted if the patient needed treatment, or were to pass away while in hospital.
  • Holding a role of responsibility when the patient is in hospital. If something were to happen, it would then be the job of the next of kin to contact the deceased’s other loved ones, make important medical decisions (for example, organ donation), and then to arrange the funeral.
  • Arranging the funeral. The next of kin (unless stated otherwise in the will) will be responsible for making funeral arrangements.

Will my next of kin automatically receive a share of my assets, even if I haven’t made a will? 

No, because the label of next of kin does not hold any legal weight, this will not give them rights to inheritance.

If you die without a will, then you will be classed as dying intestate. In this instance, your assets will be passed down to your family, following a fixed legal process. In this process, the law grants priority to blood relatives over friends, partners who are not your legal spouse, or step-children (more on this later).

As a result, if you wish to leave assets to your next of kin (and they are not a close relative to you), then it is vital that you specify this in a will.

Can step-children be classed as next of kin? 

Yes, you can name step-children as your next of kin.

But, it is vital to understand that naming someone as your next of kin does not give them any automatic legal rights to inheritance. What’s more, the process of intestacy does not include step-children.

As a result, if you were to pass away without writing a will, your step-children would not have the right to inherit anything, even if they were named as your next of kin.

This is also true for partners who you are not in a legally-binding relationship (marriage or civil partnership) with, or close friends.

Start the conversation

When considering who you would like to represent you after you pass away, it’s vital that you make your wishes as clear as possible.

Naturally, speaking about death is something that many of us find distressing or uncomfortable. However, it is so important that you carefully communicate your wishes to your next of kin. This way, they will be able to make these key decisions with confidence and peace of mind, knowing that they are fulfilling your hopes.

Also, remember that the position of next of kin does not hold any legal inheritance rights. If you would like your next of kin to receive a share of inheritance from you, make sure you create a will in which you declare this legally – we cannot stress the importance of this enough.

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