Next of kin is a term used to refer to someone who is the closest blood relation of someone who is incapacitated or dead. For legal purposes, adoptive members of the family are treated as next of kin even though they are not blood relations. Some legal statutes also include people who are associated by affinity, such as spouses, under this term. By contrast, a stranger in blood is someone who has no known blood connection to another person.
Ever since humans have had property to bequeath, rules of inheritance have generally followed next of kin guidelines. When someone dies, the closest relatives are believed to be entitled to the estate unless the individual's will specifically states otherwise. In the event that someone dies intestate or without a will, the distribution of the inheritance is determined by looking for the next of kin. If no blood relations can be found, the ownership of the estate will revert to the government through escheatment.
Concerns about locating next of kin are not limited to situations in which someone dies and heirs must be found. When people are incapacitated by injuries or chronic conditions which prevent them from taking an active role in their medical care, someone must be appointed to make decisions. If someone has not expressed prior wishes and appointed someone to do this, the next of kin are allowed to make decisions on his or her behalf.
It is rare for it to be impossible to locate next of kin for someone who cannot make medical decisions, but it does happen. In these cases, someone may be appointed by a court to take charge of medical and legal decisions on the behalf of a person who is unable to do so. This person must act in what he or she believes is the best interest of the person being represented. People who know that they have specific wishes about how medical and legal issues should be handled should meet with a lawyer and a person they would like to appoint to enforce these wishes so that someone will already be in place in the event of a problem.
Most nations have established precedence for next of kin based on level of connection to the deceased. For example, children inherit before nieces and nephews. Close family are usually given precedence although someone in the close family of the deceased may opt to distribute part of the estate to someone who is more remotely related.