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.
When 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.
When 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.
Note: This page is for general informational purposes only. LLS cannot give personal legal advice to any individual. Please contact an attorney with any questions.