What Happens if a Person Dies Without a Will?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 15, 2021

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If someone dies without leaving a valid will, the person is said to have died intestate (that’s legalese for without a will)  – the property she held in her own name as his or her own separate property passes to the person or persons specified in the laws of the deceased’s state of residence, after any bills and taxes are taken care of. The property she held in a trust, a retirement plan, or life insurance, or owned jointly with someone else passes directly to the named beneficiaries or other joint owners.

Each state has its own unique laws of intestate distribution, and although they are all a bit different, generally the property of an unmarried person goes to her children, if any, and if not to her parents. For married individuals, a portion of the deceased’s own property typically goes to the spouse, and a portion to the children, if any, or to the parents. If there is no spouse, no children, and no surviving parents, it goes to the brothers and sisters of the deceased, if any, and if not, it goes to more distant relatives – in the order that is specified and applied in a rather mechanical way under the intestate succession law of your state residence.

By the way, you may have heard that if there is no will the state gets to keep all the money. That’s not the case, except when the deceased has no reasonably close blood relatives – when the family tree is virtually bare; it’s rare, but it can happen.

If you die without a will, who would handle the rather heavy administrative work of gathering up the deceased’s assets, selling some to be able to pay the bills and taxes, and then distributing the balance to the proper beneficiaries?  The Probate Court where the deceased resided typically appoints a beneficiary or relative to serve as the Administrator or Personal Representative of the estate to do just that, and then the court supervises to make sure the Administrator does what he or she is supposed to do.

Although the system can work when someone dies without a will, preparing a will is a wise thing, as it allows you to choose which relatives and friends and charities should get your assets, and in what proportion, rather than using a fixed distribution list that the state legislature decided on decades ago. Having your will also makes handling your estate much easier on the survivors, and far less expensive and faster.

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