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

A fast guide to the terminology of inheritance to assist you in making sense of who is who in an estate plan.

The law has many various terms for individuals that inherit property from a deceased individual’s estate, some which are “beneficiary,” “legatee,” “devisee,” and “heir.” To make matters even more complex, the use of these terms vary state to state. If you’re making an estate plan or discover yourself being beneficiary of one, understanding a couple of the more commonly used inheritance terms can be very beneficial.

What is a beneficiary?

“Beneficiary” is a common term for an individual appointed in a will or trust to accept property. Through a trust, the beneficiary might either possess a current or future interest.

Beneficiary is typically used as an universal term that is going to cover some more specific appointments.

What is a legatee?

The definition, historically, of “legatee” is an individual who receives personal property (instead of real property) from an estate, but it has come to more commonly refers to as an individual that inherits through a will but might not be related to the decedent (the person that has passed away).

The most typical instance would be a friend inheriting through an individual’s will; however the legatee could also be a non-profit, business, or other entity.

What is a devisee?

Speaking historically, a “devisee” is an individual that receives real property (instead of personal property) from an estate.

In the modern age, nevertheless, a devisee typically refers to anyone that receives property by being appointed in a decedent’s will if they are related or not—such as a friend, as explained above.

What are the differences between a legatee and a devisee?

The differences separating a devisee and a legatee are the type of property they inherit. A legatee is going to inherit personal property (art, boats, cash, etc.) whereas a devisee is going to inherit real property, like the family home.

Under present laws, however, the main difference separating a legatee and a devisee is merely the governing state law. That is, whereas many states use the term “legatee” in reference to an individual that inherits through a will but isn’t related to the decedent, other states might use “devisee,” but the terms are, basically, exchangeable.

Is a legatee a beneficiary?

The definition of a beneficiary is pretty extensive, meaning it comprises of both devisees and legatees.

Who is a ‘universal legatee’?

A “universal legatee” is a term only used in the state of Louisiana, the only one that applies civil law, whereas the rest of the US implements common law. Louisiana refers to property leftover in a will as “universal legacy,” so the individual that inherits the obligations, rights, possession, and liabilities of an ancestor’s title in property under a testamentary disposition is referred to as a “universal legatee.”

What is an heir?

“Heir” typically refers to relatives by blood— parents, children, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, uncles, grandparents, and cousins—in addition to the decedent’s living spouse and adopted children. Heirs are typically confined to those blood related, marriage, or adoption.

The notion of heirs usually comes up when someone passes away intestate (with no will). In this example, state intestacy laws regulate the allocation of the decedent’s property, adhering to a line of intestate succession. Laws differ by state, however, in many jurisdictions, spouses and children initially inherit. When a decedent had no spouse or children, typically parents are next to inherit, and so on down the line of family members.

And, once more, since the definition of beneficiary covers tons of ground, an heir would be deemed a beneficiary also.

As expected with laws managing estates, trusts, and wills, you should verify the laws in your state to make sure which rules and conditions apply in your jurisdiction.


  1. Legatee, Heir, beneficiary and devisee: What are the differences? LegalZoom. (n.d.). Retrieved February 7, 2023, from https://www.legalzoom.com/articles/legatee-heir-beneficiary-and-devisee-what-are-the-differences

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