How the U.S. Decides Who Takes Office If the President Dies

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The Presidential Succession Act of 1947 was signed into law on July 18th of that year by President Harry S. Truman. This act set the order of presidential succession that is still followed today. The act established who would take over if the president dies, is incapacitated, resigns or is ousted, or is otherwise incapable of performing the job.

One of the most important issues for the stability of any government is a smooth and orderly transition of power. Succession acts were installed by the U.S. government beginning within a few years of the ratification of the Constitution. These acts were set up so that in the event of the untimely death, incapacitation, or ouster of both the President and Vice President, there should be absolute certainty who would become president and in what order. In addition, those rules needed to minimize any incentive to cause a double vacancy by assassination, impeachment, or other illegitimate means; and anyone who is an unelected official acting as president should be limited in the energetic exercising of the powers of that high office.

History of the Succession Acts

The first succession law was enacted in the Second Congress of both houses in May of 1792. Section 8 said that in the event of the incapacity of both the President and Vice President, the President pro tempore of the US Senate was next in line, followed by the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Although the act never required implementation, there were instances when a president served without a Vice President and, had the president died, the president pro tempore would have had the title of Acting President of the United States. The Presidential Succession Act of 1886, also never implemented, set the Secretary of State as the Acting President after the President and Vice President.

1947 Act of Succession

After the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1945, President Harry S. Truman lobbied for a revision of the law. The resulting act of 1947 restored the Congressional officers—who are after all at least elected—to places directly after the Vice President. The order was also revised so that the Speaker of the House came before the President Pro Tempore of the Senate. Truman's main concern was that with the third position of succession set as the Secretary of State, he would be, in effect, the one who named his own successor.

The 1947 succession law established the order that is still in place today. However, the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, which was ratified in 1967, reversed Truman's practical concerns and said that if a Vice President was incapacitated, dead, or ousted, the president could appoint a new Vice President, after majority confirmation by both houses of Congress. In 1974, when both President Richard Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned their offices since Agnew resigned first, Nixon named Gerald Ford as his vice president. And in turn, Ford was required to name his own Vice President, Nelson Rockefeller. For the first time in American history, two unelected persons held arguably the most powerful positions in the world.

Current Succession Order

The order of cabinet officers included in this list is determined by the dates on which each of their positions was created.

  • Vice President
  • Speaker of the House
  • President pro tempore of the Senate
  • Secretary of State
  • Secretary of Treasury
  • Secretary of Defense
  • Attorney General
  • Secretary of the Interior
  • Secretary of Agriculture
  • Secretary of Commerce
  • Secretary of Labor
  • Secretary of Health and Human Services
  • Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  • Secretary of Transportation
  • Secretary of Energy
  • Secretary of Education
  • Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  • Secretary of Homeland Security


Calabresi SG. 1995. The Political Question of Presidential Succession. Stanford Law Review 48(1):155-175.

Schlesinger AM. 1974. On the Presidential Succession. Political Science Quarterly 89(3):475-505.

Silva RC. 1949. The Presidential Succession Act of 1947. Michigan Law Review 47(4):451-476.

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Kelly, Martin. "How the U.S. Decides Who Takes Office If the President Dies." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Kelly, Martin. (2021, February 16). How the U.S. Decides Who Takes Office If the President Dies. Retrieved from Kelly, Martin. "How the U.S. Decides Who Takes Office If the President Dies." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).