Your next of kin is the person who receives your assets if you die and who may be able to make medical decisions if you are unable to do so. The law sets a specific order of precedence for next of kin, with spouses coming first. Consequently, your next of kin isn't really someone you name at all, but is instead the person the law chooses to act in your stead. You can designate a next of kin in your will, but if you don't do so, your spouse will be your next of kin.
Inheritance automatically goes to your legal next of kin -- your spouse -- if you die, but your will can change this. You might opt to leave some things to your spouse and others to your children or parents. If your spouse handles money poorly, you might consider setting up a trust for him so that he can have access to your money, but won't be able to burn through it.
Your next of kin will have the ability to make medical decisions for you if you are incapacitated, so it's wise to choose someone who will respect your wishes. This may or may not be your spouse, and if you worry that your spouse will be too stressed to make good decisions, it might be a better idea to choose a parent or friend. Your living will indicates what you would like done if you can't make decisions for yourself, and you can also give a power of attorney to the person you choose as your next of kin.
If you are injured in an accident or some other mishap, your doctor or the police will try to notify your next of kin. They usually assume that your spouse is your next of kin, but they'll have to know who your spouse is to notify him. If you want someone else notified, it's wise to make this clear. Some people opt to put an emergency contact number -- denoted with ICE for "in case of emergency" -- in their cell phones or provide contact information in their wallets or planners. Some states, such as Ohio, offer next-of-kin registration services, which you can use to register your next of kin. Choose the person who will notify other family members. This could be your spouse, but it could also be a close friend or child. If your spouse is disabled or unlikely to make good decisions in the event of your death, it may be wise to choose a different next of kin.
The executor of your estate is the person charged with the task of disposing of your assets and notifying people of their inheritance. If you don't trust the people designated to inherit items in your will, selecting an executor to ensure your will is properly managed can help protect your wishes. While many people select their spouses, using an attorney, a financially-savvy friend or a disinterested third party are also options.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.