What Happens When People Die Without a Will?

If you're considering meeting with an attorney to draw up the customary estate planning documents, you may be wondering what happens when people die without a will.

First, it's important to understand that there are many different types of assets that pass outside of a will, and are therefore not subject to probate, these include but are not limited to:

  • Payable-on-death bank accounts,
  • Life insurance proceeds,
  • IRAs or 401(k)'s with a named beneficiary,
  • Stocks and securities with transfer-on-death designations,
  • Property held in living trusts, and
  • Real estate held in joint tenancy, tenancy by entirety, or community property with right of survivorship.

Who inherits which types of property depends on your beneficiary designations. For example, you could name your eldest son as the beneficiary on your checking account, but you could name your daughter as the sole beneficiary on your life insurance policy.

Meanwhile, you could instruct that certain funds in a trust account goes to your favorite charity upon your passing. All of these assets would be going to different named beneficiaries, and they would not be influenced by a will.

Basic Rules of Intestate Succession

Dying without a will is called dying intestate. Each state has enacted its own laws regarding intestate succession. If you die without a will or a trust, then your state's laws will dictate how your property is distributed, that is to say property that does not have beneficiary designations.

As a general rule, only spouses, domestic partners, and blood relatives inherit a decedent's property under a state's intestate succession laws. This means that unmarried partners, close friends, and charities won't get a dime.

Usually, if the deceased was married, then their spouse will get the largest share, and if the couple didn't have any children, the spouse will receive all of the property. Other relatives such as the decedent's parents, siblings, nieces or nephews only inherit when there is no surviving spouse and no surviving children. Usually, an estate is distributed to the closest living blood relatives.

If there are no living relatives, then the state will take the estate, however, this very rarely happens. To find the rules in your state, contact a probate attorney near you!