Group Inheritance: How Does a Class Gift in a Will Work?

An inheritance left to a group of people—like “my children”—is called a “class gift.” Dividing class gifts can be confusing if one class member dies.

By , Attorney · George Mason University Law School

If you have a group of people you love equally, like children or grandchildren, it makes sense that you'd want your will to treat them equally. One way people leave equal gifts is by giving property to a group.

What Is a Class Gift?

A "class gift" is a gift in a will to a group of beneficiaries. To make a class gift, you must describe the beneficiaries as a group in your will—by using words like "my siblings"—instead of naming each person by name.

For instance, someone might leave a gift—or an entire estate—in a will to "my children" or "my surviving nieces and nephews." Because the beneficiaries aren't individually named, and are instead described as members of a certain class, this is a class gift.

Who Gets a Class Gift If One of the Class Members Dies?

Generally, if a member of a class dies before the will-maker does, the property goes only to the surviving members of the class, unless the will provides for descendants of class members to receive the property.

Class Gifts to Specific Groups

A share of a class gift to a specific group—like "siblings," "cousins," or "nieces" —generally won't pass to the offspring of a deceased group member.

For example, say Marcus uses his will to leave a piece of real estate to "my surviving brothers and sisters." The will doesn't name any alternate beneficiaries. When he signs his will, he has two brothers and two sisters still living. At his death, however, his brother Stephen has died, leaving two daughters of his own. Marcus's surviving brother and sisters inherit the real estate; Marcus's nieces, the children of his deceased brother, do not get a share.

Class Gifts to "Heirs" or "Descendants"

Terms like "heirs," "descendants," and "issue" are treated differently from terms like "children." "Heirs," "descendants," and "issue" can include people across different generations and groups; "children" can't.

Suppose Marcus wanted to leave his real estate to his children rather than his siblings. If he had two sons and a daughter and left the real estate to "my descendants," then his children would split the real estate equally. If his daughter, Sally, died before him but had her own daughter, then that child—Marcus's granddaughter—would inherit Sally's share under most states' laws. Marcus's granddaughter inherits a share because "descendants" can include children and grandchildren.

Class Gifts, Gifts to Individuals, and Anti-lapse Laws

Gifts to named individuals usually are treated differently than class gifts even if the individuals are members of the same group, like siblings or children.

For instance, if Marcus's will had left the property to his siblings by name—"to Jacob Williams, Stephen Williams, Marcia Williams Hewitt, and Juana Williams"—then the gift would not be considered a class gift.

In our example, when Marcus died, Stephen had already died, leaving two daughters. Assuming Marcus's will referenced his siblings by name as described above, his state's "anti-lapse statute" might apply. If that statute did come into play, then Stephen's share would go to his daughters.

Anti-lapse statutes presume that, when you leave property to a close relative and that person dies before you do, you would want that person's children to inherit their share.

Every state except Louisiana has an anti-lapse statute. The various state anti-lapse laws are similar but often have slight differences.

Determining Whether a Gift Was Intended as a Class Gift

How do you know if a gift is a class gift? If there's any confusion about the will-maker's intent, a probate judge will get involved. The judge will first look at the language of the will to see if the will-maker used typical class gift descriptions like "children," "siblings," and "nieces and nephews."

If the language is unclear, the judge could also look at the will as a whole to see if other language or gifts in it clarify the will-maker's intent. The judge even could look at other circumstances outside of the will, such as the relationship between the beneficiary and the will-maker.

Getting Help From an Attorney

Class gifts and anti-lapse rules are complicated. Gifts to groups of people often spawn confusion—or argument.

If you are drafting a will and are not sure how to give a gift to a group of people or have any other questions, you can consult with an estate planning lawyer.

If you are an executor, don't know what the will-maker intended, and can't figure out who should inherit a gift, it's probably time to get advice from a probate lawyer.

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