What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will?

By Katherine at Legal Language
Posted on 07/21/2010
In Legal Resources



Many people put off creating a will for years, but what happens if you die without one?

Whether you are young or old, rich or poor, you should consider creating a will or trust. When a person dies without a will, an already difficult situation can become a complicated legal mess for the person’s loved ones.

The State Is Involved

When a person dies without a will, it is said that the person died “intestate.” Each state has intestacy laws in place which determine who is entitled to the deceased’s property and assets.

While intestacy laws vary slightly from state to state, they generally follow the same path, especially for smaller estates. If someone dies without a will but owns no property and has assets of less than $100,000, no formal court proceeding is required. Family members can file a Declaration of Small Estate through a bank or even the DMV and are then allowed to collect and split the deceased’s assets.

If property is involved, however, collecting the estate becomes more complicated.

Property & Relationships Are Involved

When a person dies without a will and owns property, the process varies considerably based on the deceased’s relationship status.

If the person who dies without a will is single with or without children, the process is generally easier than if the deceased is married or has a domestic partner.

What If the Person Who Dies Without a Will Is Single?

If a person who is not married dies without a will, the person’s estate goes to his or her child or is split evenly between multiple children.

If the person who dies without a will has no children, then the estate goes to his or her parents. If the parents are deceased, the estate is split among siblings.

What If the Person Who Dies Without a Will Is Married?

State laws vary far more widely if a person dies without a will and leaves behind a spouse or domestic partner, children and other relatives.

If there are children in the relationship, they may inherit up to two-thirds of the estate while the spouse receives the remainder.

If there are no children in the relationship, the surviving spouse may inherit the entire estate — or, depending on the state, as little as one-third of the property and assets, with the rest going to the parents and siblings of the deceased.

Intestacy Laws Around the World

In ancient times, if a person died and left no clear heirs, kings or other rulers would claim the deceased’s estate as their own.

In some ways, that rule is still in effect — if the deceased has no living relatives, his or her property and assets get turned over to the state.

Many countries around the world have intestacy laws similar to those of the United States, including Canada, England, Wales and Ireland. Other countries do not have explicit intestacy laws, but many family members of people who die without wills can successfully claim ownership of their deceased relatives’ estates.


29 Responses to “What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will?”

  1. ritsonlaw Says:

    Kaytie,

    Would love to do guest blog.

    Let us know what you require.

    info@ritsonlaw.co.uk

  2. Umair Says:

    Dear Sir,
    On date 24th Dec 2012 My uncle died in Manchaester Rochdale.
    Orginaly he was from Pakistan but got british nationality.
    After his death her wife did not allow to transfer the body to pakistan to his parents & brother & burried him in UK.
    We are living out of UK so we do not have an idea that how to do this all.However we know that she did this all for the wealth,insurance claim & other financial benifit that will meet her after the death of her husband.
    Now we want to know that how we can get our right.

  3. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Dear Umair,

    Unfortunately Legal Langauge cannot give legal advice online. Please contact a lawyer for help with your situation.

    Best of luck,
    Kaytie at Legal Language

  4. kristen Says:

    What happens if a person dies and has no will and you win a case from wrongful death suit with the earnings?

  5. Lillian Says:

    Grandfather died in 1947, recently found title to home is still in his name since 1928. He was a widow and left 2 daughters. 1st daughter had 8 children,2nd daughter had 3 children. 1st daughter out lived 6 of her a children and died 1998. At this time her 2 surviving children are also deceased. 2nd daughter died 2012, her 3 children alive. Existing deed is in the name of a great-granddaughter, but title was never changed. Who are the rightful owners
    of this property?

  6. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hello Lillian,

    You should have a lawyer look over the details of this situation. Since every case differs, Legal Language cannot offer specific legal advice.

    Good luck!

    Kaytie at Legal Language

  7. Dana Says:

    Hmm this is a hard one for me. My Mother passed away on Sunday the 21st of this month. She had no will… my brother caught my father trying to get my Mother to sign a will on her death bed. This has upset the entire family. They own a large farm and have bank accounts from money my mother got when her father passed. Mother had told us in the past she had set up college funds for her grandchildren. The will that he wanted her to sign stated any and all accounts and property was to go to him and him alone. None of us children want his property, but what about the college funds for the children? We kind of feel like he has tryed to be greedy with the money. This breaks my heart in a time like this. What can we do? The paper he wanted her to sign stated all other wills before this one would be void. This makes me think she did have a will and be wants to change it more to his favor. Is there a way to find out if a person has a will already?

  8. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hello Dana,

    I’m sorry to hear about your loss. You can try calling your local probate court and seeing if she had filed a will there.

    Good luck,

    Kaytie at Legal Language

  9. Jeannette Says:

    My mother died recently and had no will. She had prpropty. My sister and I were her guardians for about 2 years. We have another sister and one sister that had pasted away-she had two children. My second sister is not cooperating with us. The other four of us are in agreement on how to handle the estate. What will happen if she continues to object? We are in Kansas

  10. Clint Says:

    My uncle had died without a will. He was single and my mother took care of the estate. She has given money to my uncle,two aunts,and grandmother. My uncle has money under $6,000 which some banks and securities are refusing to give up the money. Could she use a Simplified Procedures form in her state of NC to get that money? Hope for your reply.

  11. Elizabeth at Legal Language Says:

    Clint -

    Legal Language cannot provide advice on specific legal matters. Contact a lawyer for guidance on your situation.

    Thank you for reading,

    Elizabeth at Legal Language

  12. Rachel Says:

    My friends husband (Utah) bought a duplex and had it in his name only and died without a will. They have one child together and he has 2 children (all adults)from previous marriage. Everything else they had was owned jointly. Now what?

  13. Elizabeth Says:

    Rachel -

    Unfortunately, Legal Language cannot provide advice regarding this situation. I recommend that your friend consult an attorney who wil be able to provide legal guidance on this matter.

    Thanks for reading,

    Elizabeth at Legal Language

  14. tarsha Says:

    Hi my father was never married but live in sc he have 6 children in ny and one in sc she told us that we was not intitle to any thing but he did not leave a will she said because we live in ny everything goes to her if that not true how do we fix it and how do we get a law

  15. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hi Tarsha,

    You should discuss this with an attorney. You may want to begin by looking through our attorney database: http://www.legallanguage.com/professionals/VendorSearch.aspx?Type=Attorney .

    Good luck,
    Kaytie at Legal Language

  16. HollyE Says:

    Can you elaborate on how detailed the information on a will must be in order to be pertinent? In other words, would it be a legal issue if the will designates an individual but only contained wording naming the institutions (bank name and brokerage firm…) without listing individual account numbers? There is no dispute between members of the family…but there is concern with how institutions handle such matters.
    Thank you for your reply!

  17. HollyE Says:

    When living together (not married), would opposite sex partners be considered ‘domestic partners’ or would ‘spouse’ be appropriate when constructing a will (in Texas)? Is there a period of time that would legally constitute ‘common law marriage’? It seems there are a lot of urban myths surrounding this topic!
    Thank you for your reply!

  18. melissa Says:

    Hello! I was just looking online and found this site. My father just past away and he was dating a woman for over 10 years but they never married and he had no will . He has property and other belongings that she is trying to say are hers because she was with him for so long. None of the things were actually purchased by her because she has never worked or had any income. Do you have any advice as to what I need to do in order to retrieve my fathers belongings before they get sold by her or is there any legal to stop her?

  19. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hi Melissa,

    Unfortunately Legal Language cannot give legal advice online. You should discuss this issue with an attorney.

    Good luck,

    Kaytie at Legal Language

  20. Kody bennett Says:

    Wow thats interesting

  21. Korea Anderson Says:

    If a person dies and has absolutely no living family whatsoever, what happens to their properties and money? And let’s say this person has a quarter of a million dollars in a bank. What happens to that money?

  22. Kaytie at Legal Language Says:

    Hi Korea,

    Generally, if a person has no living relatives, and no will stating what to do with their assets otherwise, all of their assets are turned over to the state.

    Thanks for your question!
    -Kaytie at Legal Language

  23. hbtpen Says:

    a friend died has a ex wife who they still got along great but his dad and sisters all live in japan how or what do the ex or the family members do in this case? no property owned except a car and stuff in his apartment no kids…body still at corners office who can get him released?

  24. PAM KING Says:

    My husband died December 4, 2013. We had separate bank accounts, we did not have a will and the bank told me I needed to be named executor of his estate. Went to courthouse and they gave me a packet of papers to fill out and said it will cost $231 to file out. What exactly is an executor of estate and what do they do? The only thing we owned together was an acre of land and it is paid for.

  25. Gwen Sharp Says:

    I have recently found out who my father was/is. He passed away in 1984 and I would like to become his legal child. My mother did not name him on my birth certificate, she gave no name for a father. What is required in the state of Michigan, where he lived and I was born or if possible in the state of Florida where I live now. I have no desire to claim any estate only to have legal documents showing he is my father. I am 60 years old and it took 50 years for my mother to tell me his name this was just before she passed away.

  26. Richard Setzer Says:

    My father died in California this week. He was widowed, had no will, nor did he own any property, car etc. apart from a small checking & savings account. We want to pay off what few debts he had–how is this accomplished?

  27. Pooven Govender Says:

    My sister died nearly 4 years ago in South Africa and had not left a will
    She was married and had no children
    She owned 2 properties, in Johannesburg where she lived with her husband and one in Durban where my mum lived (my mum had previously sold her house and contributed to the purchase of the flat in Durban)
    My sister had intended to create a will but needed copies of passports of her nieces and nephews which was not sent to her to complete this process
    What are legal rights of my mum staying in the Durban property and does she have any claim to my sister’s life insurance payout
    My sister had publicly said that eventually the flat in Jhb was to go my daughter and the flat in Durban to one of my nephews

  28. D. Williamson Says:

    My father died 6 years ago and now that my wife is in real estate we are just finding out that he owned the house he lived in. How do I go about getting ownership of this home if his brother is currently living in it?

  29. Cathy harrell Says:

    My dad died and left no will. The farm passed to my mother, sister and me. Our mother passed away. If my sister or I die will the farm pass to the survivor only or to the deceased sister’s children also? This is in Texas.

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