Descent Definition and Legal Meaning

On this page, you'll find the legal definition and meaning of Descent, written in plain English, along with examples of how it is used.

What is Descent?

n. Inheritance rules that were established by law for cases where a will does not exist that names who should receive the possessions of the deceased. State rules vary and are governed by the law of the state where the deceased lived. The estate my all go to a surviving spouse and down the line from a parent to child or to surviving parents, or to brothers and sisters. Determining who receives the estate depends upon which relatives survive. Aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews may inherit if there are no relative survivors, but it depends upon the decree of kinship, state laws of descent and distribution, and whether the person who has died lived in a community property state.

History and Meaning of Descent

Descent refers to the process and set of legal rules that determine who is entitled to inherit the property of a deceased person in the absence of a valid will. The law of descent is governed by state statutes which vary in their application, but generally follow a set pattern of distribution to specified heirs.

Throughout history, inheritance laws have been closely linked to the structure of family and kinship relations, typically favoring the property rights of patriarchal and patrilineal lineages. However, in more recent times, most states have adopted more gender-neutral and equitable rules of descent, which prioritize the surviving spouse and close family members over extended family members.

Examples of Descent

  1. After John's sudden death, his estate was distributed by the law of descent, which awarded everything to his wife and children.
  2. The attorney advised his client to prepare a will to ensure that his assets were distributed according to his wishes and not subject to the state's law of descent.
  3. In some cases, disputes arise over the validity of distant relatives making claims under the law of descent for a share of the estate.

Legal Terms Similar to Descent

  1. Inheritance: The transfer of property, assets, and entitlements from one person to another upon death or by gift.
  2. Probate: The legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person, including validating the will and distributing the assets.
  3. Intestacy: The state of dying without a valid will, resulting in the application of the law of descent to determine who inherits the estate.
  4. Escheat: The reversion of property to the state when there are no legal heirs or beneficiaries able to claim it.