Understanding Exception Hierarchy in Java Explained

The term ‘Exception’ is short for “exceptional event.” In Java, an Exception is essentially an event that occurs during the execution of a program and disrupts the program’s normal flow. Exceptions are unwanted and mostly unexpected, generally arising at run- or compile-time. These Exceptions must be handled to ensure the program runs in its natural flow. However, it would help to know what kinds of Exceptions are present with Java before we handle Exceptions. Through this article, I will explain various types of Exceptions in Java and the Exception Hierarchy in java. 

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Exceptions Hierarchy in Java 

The hierarchy of Exceptions in the Java programming language begins with the Throwable class – which comes from the Object class and is its direct subclasswhileThe Exception class presents all This Throwable class further branches into two subclasses – Error and Exception. Here’s a flowchart to understand the Java Exception hierarchy better: 

The Exception class presents all the Exceptions that you might need to handle while working with the Java programming language. Some commonly known and encountered examples of such Exceptions include NullPointerException, ClassNotFoundException, IllegalArgumentException, etc. 

On the other hand, the Error class takes care of more severe problems in your Java program architecture and is not taken care of within the application code. Some examples of errors in Java are InternalError, AssertionError, OutOfMemoryError, etc. 

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Exceptions in Java are further divided into two categories: 

  • Checked Exceptions – These are also known as compile-time exceptions. 
  • Unchecked Exceptions – These are also known as runtime exceptions. 

One important point to note at this juncture is that unchecked Exceptions are all subclasses of the RuntimeException class. We will talk more about checked and unchecked exceptions later on in this article. But before that, let’s look at essentially how Errors and Exceptions differ in their working so that there is no confusion. 

Reasons why Exceptions do occur? 

Consider exceptions as the unexpected guests at the party of your program’s execution — they show up uninvited due to a few common hiccups. Here’s why they might knock on your door: 

  • Human Error: Sometimes, it’s just us. Maybe we mistype something or expect a file to be in one place when it’s in another. It happens to the best of us.
  • Resource Issues: Programs also throw a fit when they can’t find what they need, like trying to read a file that’s gone missing or reaching out to a database that’s taking a nap.
  • Environmental Mishaps: Occasionally, the environment where the program runs decides to act up — think of a network glitch right in the middle of a data transfer.  
  • Bugs in the Code: And then, there are those pesky bugs. A slip in the logic or using a method incorrectly can easily ruffle the feathers of your otherwise smooth-running code.
  • System Overload: Even systems have bad days; maybe there’s not enough memory to carry out your commands.

In Java, these scenarios are neatly packed into ‘exceptions’ so you can manage them gracefully, rather than letting your program crash. It’s Java’s saying, “Heads up, something’s not right, but you can handle it!” 

Errors and Exceptions in Java – How Do They Differ?

The official documentation of the Java programming language refers to Errors as occurrences during your Java programming that – “indicate serious problems that a reasonable application should not try to catch.” The seriousness of Errors is clear from the way this statement is poised. Clearly, this refers to the set of problems that your program might face that is not possible for it to recover from without either refactoring the code or modifying the Java application architecture.

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Let’s look at a Java method that is going to throw an error: 

public static void print(String S) {



In the code mentioned above, the method print() acts as a recursive method that keeps calling itself repeatedly, over and over again, until it reaches the maximum allowed size for a thread stack in Java. At that point, it exits execution with a very common – StackOverflowError, which reads something like: 

Exception in thread “main” java.lang.StackOverflowError

at StackOverflowErrorExample.print(

As the above example shows, the method throws an example, but this error cannot be handled in the code itself. So, the program simply quits execution because the damage is irrecoverable. As a solution, the code needs to be modified. 

Contrary to Errors, Exceptions indicate conditions that can be caught by a reasonable application. Exceptions in Java include issues that might occur either at the compile-time or during run time. These Exceptions happen rather frequently in all applications – especially during the testing and debugging phase. As a result, Exceptions in Java can be handled within the program itself to ensure that the code runs its natural flow. 

Now, let’s talk a bit more about Exception Hierarchy in Java by looking at what checked and unchecked Exceptions are. 

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Checked and Unchecked Exceptions in Java

As mentioned earlier, Exceptions in a Java program can happen either during the compile-time or during the run time. This is what gives us the two broad types of Exceptions present in Java. Here’s looking at these two exceptions in detail. 

Compile-time Exceptions

Exceptions that happen at the compile time are known as compile-time exceptions. These are also called checked exceptions because of the fact that you need to explicitly check them in your Java program and handle them in the code itself. Classes like InterruptedException, IOException, and more are checked exceptions. 

Let’s look at a method that can handle a checked exception: 

public void writeAFile() {

try (BufferedWriter b_w = new BufferedWriter(new FileWriter("myFile.txt"))) {


    } catch (IOException ioe) {




As you can see, there are two statements in the above code’s try block – 

  • Instantiating the object – BufferedWriter
  • Using the object to write to the file

Both these statements can throw IOException. IOException, being a Checked Exception, needs to be handled either by the caller or the method. In the above example, you can see the exception being handled within the method itself.

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Runtime Exceptions

Contrary to compile-time exceptions that are thrown during compile time, runtime or unchecked exceptions can be thrown “at any time”, which essentially means at runtime. As a result of this, methods don’t need to explicitly use catch-and-throw blocks to handle these unchecked exceptions. Some of the classes that inherit unchecked runtime exceptions include – NullPointerException, ArithmeticException, etc. 

Let’s look at a piece of Java code that throws a NullPointerException unchecked Exception and that is not handled in the piece of code unlike earlier. Here it is: 

public void writeToFile() {

try (BufferedWriter b_w = null) {


    } catch (IOException ioe) {




When you call the above method, the program will throw a NullPointerException since the BufferedWriter object is null. Here is what the exception would read like: 

Exception in thread “main” java.lang.NullPointerException

    at IOExceptionExample.writeToFile(

    at IOExceptionExample.main(

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When to use Checked & Unchecked Exceptions

In the Java universe, exceptions are like the plot twists of a story — some are anticipated, and some catch you off-guard. Understanding when to use checked and unchecked exceptions is akin to knowing when to bring an umbrella or when to brace for an unexpected downpour. Checked exceptions are gentle reminders that something might go awry, prompting you to handle them carefully. Unchecked exceptions, on the other hand, are the unforeseen glitches that usually point to a bug in your code. 

In this section, we’ll unravel this concept further, aided by a sequence diagram that maps out the decision-making process, ensuring that every Java developer knows precisely which type of ‘umbrella’ to use in the face of Java’s exception ‘weather.’ Let’s prepare for all conditions — predictable or not. 

Explanation of the above Sequence Diagram:

  • The Developer starts by implementing a feature within the Java Application. 
  • The application checks at compile time if a Checked Exception is needed, which should be used when an exception is recoverable and expected. 
  • If a checked exception is appropriate, the Developer is prompted to handle or declare it, ensuring that the application remains robust and user-friendly. 
  • For Unchecked Exceptions, which occur at runtime, the diagram shows that these are typically due to programming errors and do not require explicit handling by the Developer. 
  • Instead, unchecked exceptions are used for issues that the application cannot recover from and often indicate bugs that need to be addressed in the code. 

When writing Java code, it’s vital to distinguish between situations that call for checked exceptions and those that are best served by unchecked exceptions. Checked exceptions are a direct communication channel, prompting the caller to proactively handle potential issues. Unchecked exceptions, conversely, signal to the Developer that there’s an underlying issue that needs correction. This distinction not only aids in writing clear and effective code but also fosters a more intuitive and error-resilient application. With the sequence diagram as a guide, Knowledge Hut ensures developers have a clear visual reference for best practices in exception handling. ​ 


With that, we come to the end of this blog on understanding the Exception Hierarchy in Java. Please keep in mind that this is by no means comprehensive coverage of Exceptions in Java and how to handle them. For that, I believe you should dig deeper and expose yourself to different possible Exceptions to see how they work. Knowing Exception Handling will set you up for a successful career as a full-stack developer since Exceptions form the basics of any application.  

I strongly recommend you explore specialized full stack development course offered by upGrad – Executive PG Programme in Software Development – Specialisation in Full Stack Development – where you go through all the nuances of software development by focusing majorly on Full Stack development. We suggest you check out the course and probably book a seat soon! 

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1. Which class is present at the top of the Exception Hierarchy in Java?

The Throwable class is at the top of the Exception Hierarchy in Java.

2. What are the different kinds of Exceptions present in Java?

Java has unchecked as well as checked exceptions. Checked Exceptions are also called compile-time exceptions, whereas Unchecked Exceptions are also known as runtime exceptions.

3. How are exceptions handled in Java?

The try-catch is the easiest way to handle Exceptions in Java. The main piece of code that you want to be run needs to be put in the try block, while one or more catch blocks will catch all the exceptions that the code throws. This method will detect any type of Java exceptions that get thrown.

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