These rules only apply when a person dies without leaving a will.

Intestacy in England and Wales

The rules are based partly on 'Degrees of Consanguinity' and partly on a system of precedence. This means that some relatives of the deceased with the same consanguinity, e.g. parents and children, do not inherit equally. The degree of consanguinity between the deceased and his intestate heirs is calculated as follows:

In the direct line, where blood relatives are descended directly from one another, each generation counts one degree. Thus, a father and son are related to one another in the first degree, a grandfather and grandson in the second degree and so on.

With collateral relatives, who are not descended from one another but from a common ancestor, the degrees of consanguinity are calculated by counting from one collateral up to the nearest common ancestor and then down to the other collateral. Each generation is again counted as a degree. Thus, the total degrees of consanguinity is the number of generations between each person and the nearest common ancestor added together. Two brothers are related in the second degree, an uncle and nephew in the third degree and so on.

A wide range of degrees of consanguinity are shown in Figure 71.

Figure 71 Showing Degrees of Consanguinity of Various Relatives

Several versions of this chart have appeared on the internet. They all suffer from the same weakness; they do not differentiate between the different types of removed cousinships, i.e. whether removed forwards or backwards through the generations. To remedy this I have repeated the above chart here using the codes introduced here

Figure 72 Showing Degrees of Consanguinity Using Coded Relationships

For those who prefer a family tree, the pedigree diagram on the next page shows a male version of the above consanguinity chart.

Figure 73 Consanguinity Chart in Pedigree Form (males only)

There follows a reproduction of a diagram published by Consumers' Association giving the rules for the distribution of intestate estates in England and Wales.

Figure 74 The Order of Distribution for Intestate Estates in England and Wales (Elmhirst, 2001)

Intestacy in Scotland

The precedence rules are similar to England and Wales except:

1.      Brothers and sisters have equal precedence with parents. If both exist the estate is divided in half.

2.      Uncles and aunts come before grandparents.

3.      Unlike England and Wales, great uncles and great aunts, second cousins and more remote relatives can inherit.

Intestacy in Northern Ireland

Similar to England and Wales except that more distant relatives can inherit as in Scotland.

Final Comments

The degree of consanguinity used by the legal profession differs from the coefficient of relationship (R) in that the former takes no account of the fact that full sibs are bilineally related (i.e through both parents). Thus, parents and children, who are only unilineally related, are given a higher degree of consanguinity than full sibs even though their R values are the same. The chart used in Figure 72 is redrafted below using coefficients of relationship to show this difference.

Brothers and sisters and the various degrees of uncles and aunts appear to be at a disadvantage in the inheritance stakes. This pattern is similar to the inheritance of titles where direct descendants are usually given precedence over collateral relatives. However, other systems have been used in the past, e.g. with the early Saxon kings the title often passed through a series of brothers before going to the next generation.

The higher relationships of identical twins and double first cousins are not accommodated by any of the rules. However, since the legal measure of consanguinity is not designed to prevent inbreeding, but to provide an easily understood method of apportioning wealth and property, then a little oversimplification may not be a bad thing.

Figure 75 Showing Coefficients of Relationship Between the Deceased and Various Relatives