Who is the next of kin? Is one person more related than another? According to family law, in some instances, the answer is "yes." Determining kinship is a charted, official matter that interacts with family law when necessary. There are specific instances when family law must determine the next of kin and the level of kinship matters. In other areas of family law, blood relatives are on level ground.
Definition of Next of Kin
The term "next of kin" is most commonly used following a death. Legally, it refers to those individuals eligible to inherit from a person who dies without a will. Surviving spouses are at the top of the list, followed by those related by blood. In the absence of a surviving spouse, blood relatives are assigned a "degree of kindred number" by the court: Tier one is typically parents and children; tier two is brothers, sisters and grandparents.
Definition of Family Law
Family law is an area of the law that encompasses family matters such as marriage, divorce, custody, adoption and estate planning. Matters relating to family law are handled in civil court, and the laws are made at the state level.
When a person dies, the legal process of distributing his assets is called probate. Probate involves a will, if available, or intestate succession (distribution to blood relatives) in the absence of a will. It is the intestate succession portion of probate that invokes the next-of-kin guidelines.
Child custody is another area where next of kin is of concern to the court. In fact, it is the fate of their surviving children that causes many parents to write a will. When both parents die, the court will consider the parents' wishes, usually outlined in a will, as to the raising of their children. Without a will, the court is left to determine who will assume custody, and the next of kin is commonly considered as an option.
When Kinship Matters
In the case of probate, most next-of-kin matters are cut and dried and there is a definite order that usually prevails. Child custody, however, is another matter. When children are left without parents, the state's child welfare organisation is usually responsible for locating blood relatives. Depending on the state, the grandparents may not have more right to legal custody than, say, the aunt and uncle. When families disagree, it is left to the court to determine the best place for the child, regardless of the level of kinship.