The term ‘next of kin’ dates back to the 18th century and was formed due to the inheritance law act, which sought to set a precedent of who would inherit property when someone died. The law set a kinship list, with kinship being the term for any blood relative 🩸. This kinship list ranked relatives in terms of closeness. Any undeclared estate would then pass to whichever family member was the highest in this list.
From this, ‘next of kin’ came to mean your closest living blood relative. Today, this means your married spouse is your next of kin, but if you’re unmarried, then it goes to children, parents and then siblings. If it needs to go further than that, it goes to grandchildren, uncles/aunties, nieces/nephews and then to cousins and so on.
Who to put as next of kin
In UK law, the next of kin have no legal rights. It's a title that you can give to anyone while you’re alive and is more commonly associated with a point of contact in times of an emergency. So in this case, you can nominate anyone to be your next of kin, including friends.
However, if you don’t put your affairs in order before you pass away, your estate may be contested. While intestacy protocols are in place (inheriting without a will), you need a will to define who would be the executor of your will and prevent the estate from being contested at probate. Probate is where someone will need to gain permission to carry out the process of settling financial affairs.
Are an executor and next of kin the same thing?
In some cases, a person may decide that their natural next of kin will be the executor of their will. If your last living parent dies, for example, it’s usual that the eldest child will act as the executor. If a spouse dies, then their partner will usually be the executor.
Naturally, some families are more complicated and the executor and natural next of kin won't be the same person. An example of this would be if a couple had separated but were not yet divorced. The former partner would be the natural next of kin but it would be very unlikely that the deceased would have wanted them to be the executor.
Getting your affairs in order
If anyone has any assets, which have either sentimental or actual value, then it’s vital that you have a will and know exactly where things are going should you pass away. This will give you peace of mind that your wishes are going to be granted in full.
Your will won’t need to make any reference to next of kin. Instead, you’ll name an executor who is going to be ultimately responsible for dealing with your affairs. Within your will, you can have specific instructions on who will receive your assets.
This is equally true of life insurance. When you take out life cover you’ll want to specifically state who are going to be your beneficiaries. This makes it very simple, and once you pass away, your family and friends will be able to focus on grieving and not financial affairs.
Without a will, things can get a bit more messy. Putting exactly what your wishes are in your will makes sure that things will not be contested at probate where the court gets involved. Given the already painful experience that grief gives any family, this can make the whole situation incredibly stressful.
Is next of kin important?
Unlike some countries (like the USA), the UK doesn’t have any defined law on legal rights for a next of kin. That being said, it does hold some legal weight in such times as probate, but plenty of other factors will also be taken into account.
It can be a factor however, if you have declining health and you want to be able to appoint someone as your attorney when going through a Lasting Power of Attorney (LPA). This person will be able to make decisions on your finances and welfare if or when you become unable too.
If you don’t designate a person under an LPA, then once again, a person claiming to be your next of kin could apply to the courts to gain rights. 🙄 You don't want this.
Get a will
Next of kin is perhaps more important when you’re alive and selecting an emergency contact. In these situations, you can declare your next of kin to be anyone you want it to be. While it can be important in death, it’s even more vital that you get your legal affairs in order before, so that it doesn’t become an issue.
So again, what does next of kin mean? Well, the definition is your closest living relative. As we have seen, if you get your affairs in order then it won't mean much. Whether your executor, attorney or beneficiary is your literal next of kin or not, it's always best to make sure your wishes are laid out clearly. In a will. With us! 🎉