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Lines of Descent
A Combs &c. Resource for Researchers


Last updated 09 Apr 2008
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Descendants and Heirs are often confused even though they are totally separate and distinct: To be an heir, one may be an "heir by devise" (named in a will), in which case, it is not necessary to be a descendant; or an "heir at law," which generally requires that one be either a descendant, spouse or adopted child, or, in days gone by, a male or eldest male child (primogeniture).

Descent requires, firstly, that one be a blood relative. There are two types of descendants: lineal and collateral:

Lineal Descent is in a direct line, such as from parent to child, or grandparent to grandchild.

Collateral Descent is indirect; i.e., "up" to one ancestor, and then "down" again, such as from brother to brother, cousin to cousin, uncle to nephew, etc.

Line of Descent is the order of succesion of blood relatives from their common ancestor. Lines of descent are lineal or collateral, and maternal or paternal.

Degree of Descent is based on the closeness of the blood relationship, with first degree being that of parent and child, second degree grandparent to grandchild, or siblings, etc. (See the University of Manitoba's Systems of Measuring Kinship Degree)

Reminder: Each country's or state's laws are different, and may change from time to time, and it is the statutes of descent and distribution in effect at the time of death that determine heirship and whether the degree of descent is close enough for one to be an heir at law. If, for example, a man dies intestate (without a will) and his closest living relative is a third cousin once removed, under the laws of most states, he is considered to have died without an "heir at law," resulting in his estate "escheating" (reverting) to the state.

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