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Merriam-Webster defines heir as "one who inherits or is entitled to inherit property" and legatee as "someone who receives money or property from a person who has died."

Is there any difference between these words in meaning or usage?

An Ngram shows that heir has always been much more common than legatee, so I wonder if the latter has a narrower meaning. Then again, it seems to me that heir is almost always used to refer to the child, niece, or nephew of the person whom the heir inherits from, so perhaps heir is used for blood relatives (after all, it's also used in the sense of "heir to the throne," which is determined by blood relation) and legatee is a broader term for anyone who inherits, such as a friend or neighbor. However, neither definition actually specifies anything about who's doing the inheriting.

Are these words meant to be used in different contexts or are they completely interchangeable?

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An 'heir' receives the gift from the deceased based on 'degree of consanguinity', i.e. blood relation to the deceased. The heir does not receive the gift through a disposition in the deceased's will when the deceased either left no will or the deceased left a will but the will was invalidated for lack of capacity, undue influence, etc. In such a case the legal heirs take the gift through intestate succession (as heirs). just as if there was no will. A legatee takes the gift from the deceased through the will of the deceased. Often the heir and the legatee are the same person. In popular usage 'heir' is not distinguished from 'legatee', especially in news stories unless the news story deals expressly with a bitterly contested will and technical legal definitions are important.

  • So if someone has a will leaving everything they own to a non-relative friend, then there is a legatee but no heir? – Nicole Jul 30 '15 at 16:52
  • Correct. An heir is one who takes the gift where the deceased leaves no will (the deceased died 'intestate'--i.e. he left no will). This is a legal definition. In popular terms (newspaper headlines) a person can be described as the 'heir/heiress to the Heinz Food fortune (Mrs. john Kerry) even though she took the gift through a will.. But this isn't a correct legal use of the word. – user3847 Jul 30 '15 at 17:05

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