Probate Fundamentals – Heir v. Legatee

Some confusion arises in Illinois probate court regarding the difference between an heir and a legatee.


  • An heir is the person who legally stands to inherit assets in the absence of direction from the decedent.


  • A legatee is someone the decedent has directed shall receive assets. The usual form of direction noted here is a will or a trust.


So if a decedent had a will leaving money to a nephew, the nephew is a legatee. If the decedent had children, then the nephew is not an heir (since the children would take to the exclusion of more distant relatives). It is possible for a person to be both an heir and a legatee. For instance, a person may direct in their will that their child is to receive their estate. The child may stand to receive the estate in the absence of a will anyway, but the will turns the child into a legatee as well.