Distributee definition: a person entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent who died without a will.
Legatee, devisee, distributee, and beneficiary. While to the naked eye these seem like synonyms, they have very important distinctions. A difference in the four terms can mean the difference in things like whether you are getting valuable property from an estate, whether you have legal ability to contest the will and whether you are entitled to demand an accounting of an estate
Let’s start with the basic definitions:
- Distributee definition: a person entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent who died without a will.
- Beneficiary– a person entitled to any part or all of an estate.
- Legatee– a person designated to receive a transfer by will of personal property.
- Devisee– a person designated to receive a transfer by will of real property.
What is a distributee? – It’s a person who is entitled to inherit from the person who died in the absence of a will. SCPA 103(14) defines a distributee as follows: “Distributee. Any person entitled to take or share in the property of a decedent under the statutes governing descent and distribution.”
What is a devisee? – it’s someone who receives real estate, such as a house from a will. In contrast, a legatee is someone who receives chattel, or personal artifacts such as art, stocks, cars, and bank accounts. So, what is a legatee? – usually someone who receives specific property. Of course, the same person could qualify as both a legatee and a devisee in a will. This distinction existed in common law, and remains to this day, though the more modern statutory provisions displace them with the term “beneficiary.” Nevertheless, a statute’s application turns on the written language.
What is a beneficiary? That’s a broad term, which combines a legatee and a devisee into one. A beneficiary has other connotations as well. In a trust, a beneficiary is someone who receives distributions from the trustee.
These three terms apply to a last will and testament left by the decedent. These terms apply to those receiving vested property, as well as those who may have a future interest whether or not the future interest ever vests.
For example: A decedent bequests his house to Bob and his heirs, as long as Bob is married, and if not to Cathy and her heirs. Decedent also devises his art collection to Cathy and her heirs. In this example: Bob is a devisee because he received the house. Bob is also a beneficiary because all devisees are beneficiaries. Cathy is a legatee because she received the art collection—a is still single when the decedent died. And Cathy is also a devisee. She stands to inherit the property in case Bob is single, thus she has what is known as an executory interest in the property. She is considered a devisee even if she never gets the property because Bob stayed single. Consequently, she is also a beneficiary.
When a statute refers to a distributee, it only refers to the case where a person died intestate—without a will. This is an important distinction for distributee definition, because while a future interest as a beneficiary may have standing to bring suit (e.g., to challenge the executor), a status of a distributee changes depending on the consanguinity and kinship proceedings.
For example, in the case of In re Reape, Mr. Reape died intestate. His brother objected to several claimants purported to be Mr. Reape’s non-marital children. Yet, once the court determined one of the claimants to be his child, the court threw out his brother’s objections as to the other claimants. Initially, the brother had an entitlement to the estate. Yet after a closer relative, he lost all standing and any rights to the matter. Thus in this case, the non-marital child is a distributee; while the brother was a potential distributee which never materialized.
New York’s estate law is complicated. The statutory application of estate distribution applies to a singular or a class of types of recipients. This is due to a combination of old common law terminology and modern definitions. Understandably, all this terminology can be a bit confusing. If you have a case that requires distributee definition, it is always best to speak with a New York estate lawyer about your status and potential options. I am a New York estate, guardianship, wills, trust, medicaid and probate lawyer with over a decade of experience. If you would like to speak to me, I can be reached at (212) 233-1233.
 In re Reape, 974 N.Y.S.2d 496 (2013).