Legatee, heir, beneficiary and devisee: What are the differences?

A quick guide to the language of inheritance to help you make sense of who's who in an estate plan.

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by Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  3min read

The law has several different terms for people who inherit property from a deceased person's estate, among which are “legatee," “heir," “beneficiary," and “devisee." To make matters even more complicated, the use of these terms vary by state. Whether you're making an estate plan or find yourself the beneficiary of one, understanding a few of the more frequently used inheritance terms can be very useful.

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What is a beneficiary?

“Beneficiary" is a generic term for someone named in a will or trust to receive property. In a trust, a beneficiary may either have a present or future interest.

Beneficiary is often used as an overarching term that covers some more specific designations.

What is a legatee?

The historical definition of “legatee" is someone who receives personal property (as opposed to real property) from an estate, but it has come to more commonly refer to a person who inherits under a will but may not be related to the decedent (i.e. the person who has died).

The most common example would be a friend inheriting under someone's will, but a legatee may also be a charity, business, or other organization.

What is a devisee?

Historically speaking, a “devisee" is someone who receives real property (as opposed to personal property) from an estate.

In modern times, though, a devisee usually refers to anyone who receives property by being named in a decedent's will whether they are related or not—like a friend, as described above.

What is the difference between a legatee and a devisee?

Applying the archaic legal definitions, the difference between a legatee and a devisee is the kind of property they inherit. A legatee inherits personal property (jewelry, vehicles, cash, etc.) while a devisee inherits real property, such as the family home.

Under current laws, though, the main difference between a legatee and a devisee is simply the governing state law. That is, while some states use the term “legatee" to refer to someone who inherits under a will but is not related to the decedent, other states may use “devisee," but the terms are, in essence, interchangeable.

Is a legatee a beneficiary?

The definition of a beneficiary is quite broad, which means it includes both legatees and devisees.

Who is a 'universal legatee'?

A “universal legatee" is a term used only in Louisiana, the only state to apply civil law, while the rest of the country applies common law. Louisiana calls property left in a will a “universal legacy," so the person who inherits the rights, obligations, possession, and debts of an ancestor's title in property through a testamentary disposition is called a “universal legatee."

What is an heir?

“Heir" generally refers to blood relatives—children, parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, grandparents, uncles and cousins—as well as the decedent's surviving spouse and adopted children. Heirs are usually limited to those related by blood, adoption, or marriage.

The concept of heirs most often arises when someone dies intestate (without a will). In this instance, state intestacy laws govern the distribution of the decedent's property, following a line of intestate succession. State laws vary, but, in most jurisdictions, spouses and children inherit first. If a decedent had no spouse or children, usually parents inherit next, and so forth down the line of relatives.

And, again, because the definition of beneficiary covers a lot of ground, an heir would be considered a beneficiary as well.

As always with laws governing wills, trusts, and estates, you should check your own state's statutes to be sure which rules and terms apply in your jurisdiction.

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Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

About the Author

Michelle Kaminsky, Esq.

Freelance writer and editor Michelle Kaminsky, Esq. has been working with LegalZoom since 2004. She earned a Juris Docto… Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.