The Legal Rights of the Beneficiaries of Wills

Wills are typically made in writing.

A person's last will and testament leaves property to people or organizations, generally referred to as beneficiaries or heirs. These people have certain rights once the will takes effect, though the specific rights each has can differ from state to state. Talk to a qualified attorney in your state for legal advice about will beneficiary rights.

Prior to Death

When a person creates a will, that will does not become effective until the creator, known as the testator or testatrix, dies. Until that time, any beneficiaries named in the will have no right to claim the property granted to them. For example, if a testator creates a will and leaves his watch to his daughter, the daughter cannot claim the watch until the testator dies. Until then, the testator has the right to do anything he chooses, including giving the watch to someone else, selling it or flinging it into the Grand Canyon.

After Death

After the testator dies, the testator's property must be accounted for and distributed according to the terms of the will. This process, generally known as the probate process or the estate settling process, is governed by state laws. The court in the state where the testator lives appoints someone, called an executor, to oversee this process and make sure the will's terms are carried out. A beneficiary named in the will has the right to receive property from the estate and to challenge the executor's actions if he believes it is contrary to the will, or to petition the court to see the contents of the will if the executor keeps them hidden.


If a person dies without a will, he still has beneficiaries. However, these beneficiaries are determined by state law, not by the terms of the will. Every state has laws that dictate who receives your property if you die without a will, known as laws of intestacy or intestate succession. (Intestacy simply means you didn't make a valid will.) If a person stands to inherit from you if you do not have a will, that person is generally known as your intestate beneficiary or intestate heir.


A beneficiary, whether through a will or through intestacy, has the right to refuse to accept or disclaim any inheritance. Also known as a renunciation, all beneficiaries have the right to refuse an inheritance, though how this is done differs from case to case. The simplest way to disclaim a beneficiary is by notifying the executor or estate administrator that you don't wish to receive the inheritance. Often, you must sign a document stating your desire to renunciate the property.