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Beyond Blood Ties: Understanding Who Qualifies as "Next of Kin"

After the death of a loved one, you may hear the phrase “next of kin.”

Next of Kin Rules Vary by State

After the death of a loved one, you may hear the phrase “next of kin.” But what does it mean and why does it matter?

The simple answer is that the next of kin is a deceased person’s closest living relative. But because the phrase is a legal one, it is a little more complicated, especially because each state has its own rules about who exactly is the next of kin.

Closest Relatives

According to Nolo Press, a DIY legal site, the next of kin is defined as “the closest relatives, as defined by state law, of a deceased person. Most states recognize the spouse or registered domestic partner and the nearest blood relatives as next of kin.”

Depending on the laws where you live, if there is not a surviving spouse or domestic partner, the next of kin designation usually moves to the deceased person’s child and so on.

Next of Kin Order

While it varies a little from state to state, the order of next of kin usually begins like this:

  • Spouse or domestic partner
  • Children  
  • Parents 
  • Siblings 
  • Extended family (nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles, grandparents and cousins)

There are two main legal circumstances that come into play involving the next of kin. One has to do with receiving the assets of someone who died without a will. Secondly, the next of kin will be responsible for several decisions on behalf of their relative including funeral arrangements and medical choices.

No Will

If you die without a will, a probate court may distribute your assets to your next of kin, Nerd Wallet explains. Every state has its own “laws of intestacy” or “intestate laws” that determine what to do if someone dies without a will. 

Decisions, Decisions

The next of kin also has the legal ability to authorize cremation or burial and make other legal and medical decisions, including registering the loved one’s death. You can learn more about these decision-making responsibilities from the Trust and Will website or planning site, Cake.

It is important to understand that the opposite case is also true. That is, if you are not the legal next of kin, you cannot make some of the decisions necessary to make funeral arrangements for your deceased loved one.

Plan Ahead

If you have someone in your life who you think will need you to make choices for them at the end of life, perhaps as their next of kin, do what you can to make a plan so that these decisions will be less difficult when they come.

Many websites have tools for starting conversations and understanding what end-of-life decisions need to be made, like planning site Cake or The Conversation Project, AARP and even Reader’s Digest. With a little knowledge, you’ll be OK as the NOK.

On the flip side, as Cake explains, if you do not want the person who is your next of kin making decisions on your behalf, you should make sure to create a will, power of attorney and advance care directive naming another person to take on those tasks.

If you're serving as the next of kin for a deceased spouse, you may also find yourself facing tax complications. For healthful tips on navigating this difficult time, take a look at our article Filing Taxes as a Widow/Widower: A Comprehensive Guide.