If you die leaving behind property and heirs, your heirs generally stand to inherit your property. When an heir predeceases you, however, how your property gets distributed is dependent on specific laws. Laws about inheritances differ considerably among states, so consult an attorney if you need legal advice about predeceased heirs and inheritances in your state of residence.
If you die, the laws of your state automatically determine who inherits your property unless you created a valid last will and testament. These laws, known as intestacy laws or laws of intestate succession -- i.e., laws governing inheritance in cases where there is no will -- predetermine not only who your heirs are but how much they stand to receive.
In some states, intestate estates pass to heirs in a manner known as "per stirpes." In per stirpes states, all children of an intestate parent stand to inherit from the parent after his death. If a child predeceases the parent, that child's own children receive the portion of the estate the child would have received if she were still alive. For example, if a parent had four children and dies intestate, each of the four children receives a quarter of the estate. If, however, one of the children predeceased the parent, that child's own children divide the one quarter of the estate among themselves.
In some states, intestate estates pass to heirs "per capita" instead of per stirpes. In a per capita succession state, heirs stand to receive the portion of the decedent's estate that the predeceased heir would have received. For example, if a woman has three children and one child predeceased her in death, only the surviving children are entitled to inherit the estate property. Each child, in this scenario, receives half of the estate, instead of receiving a third of the estate with the remaining third going to the children of the predeceased child.
A person can choose his own heirs by creating a last will and testament. A person who creates a will is generally known as a testator. If a person creates a will, leaves property to an heir and that heir predeceases the testator, the terms of the will determine who receives the property the heir would have received. For example, a testator can choose to leave the property to an heir or her offspring, in which case the offspring receive the portion the heir would have received.