In the US, I often hear that there is a list of people that can take power if everyone in front of them is dead or incapable of doing the job or resigns.

Like if the President is ever out, then the VP gets in charge. If the VP is out, then the speaker of the house gets it.

I'm pretty sure that list goes a lot further than that, even if the US never needed more than the VP before an election.

So how far does the succession list goes, and what is the order? Also, as a bonus: Am I wrong that only the VP was ever needed? Was there ever a situation where they had to go further down the list?


1 Answer 1


The list is, officially, eighteen positions long, illustrated here (with a typo).

It goes:

  1. Vice President
  2. Speaker of the House of Representatives
  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate
  4. Secretary of State
  5. Secretary of the Treasury
  6. Secretary of Defense
  7. Attorney General
  8. Secretary of the Interior
  9. Secretary of Agriculture
  10. Secretary of Commerce
  11. Secretary of Labor
  12. Secretary of Health and Human Services
  13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
  14. Secretary of Transportation
  15. Secretary of Energy
  16. Secretary of Education
  17. Secretary of Veterans Affairs
  18. Secretary of Homeland Security

You are correct that we've never gone past the VP, which we've only gotten to nine times.

It's important to note that the depth of the presidential 'bench,' if you will, varies because the requirements to become President are stricter than those necessary to become, e.g. Speaker of the House. As such, there may be people in the statutory line of succession that would be skipped.

You can't even inherit the duties of the job if you couldn't hold the job itself. So this holds even though no one below the VP actually becomes the President, they simply assume the duties and responsibilities thereof.

Per 3 U.S. Code § 19(a)(1) emphasis added:

If, by reason of death, resignation, removal from office, inability, or failure to qualify, there is neither a President nor Vice President to discharge the powers and duties of the office of President, then the Speaker of the House of Representatives shall, upon his resignation as Speaker and as Representative in Congress, act as President.

Legally the term 'act as President' is decidedly and explicitly not the same as 'becomes the President.' And later on in that same part of the USC it's explained that if at any point the President or Vice President become competent to discharge the duties of their office, the successor is dismissed - this is NOT true, however, if someone higher up the chain - but not the President or VP - becomes competent. Irrelevant in cases of death, but in the case of sickness or kidnapping, it would be possible for someone down the chain to need to assume the duties until the crisis was resolved.


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