What Happens If I Die Without A Will?

/ April 26, 2011

Tree in a Field - iStockThere are many misconceptions about who needs a Will and what happens if you die without one. If you die without a Will, the legal term is that you die “intestate,” meaning that you didn’t have a will drafted before you died or your will does not meet the requirements of your state’s laws.  For example, some states allow handwritten Wills, while others do not. (I will reserve my comments about Internet or do-it-yourself Wills for another post. Until then, read this. Hint: Don’t do it!)

Do I Need A Will?

Making a Will can be a fairly simple process and can save your family time, money and grief as well as give you peace of mind. Generally, you should have a Will if you answer yes to any of the following questions:

  • Do you care who gets your property when you die?
  • Do you care who gets your money when you die?
  • Do you care who will take care of your minor children when you die?

Without a Will, the state will make these important decisions for you. Basically, the state decides who gets your property, your money and who will care for your kids. The state will not take into account that you do not want your estranged sister to inherit anything, that you have been with your girlfriend for fifteen years (few states recognize common-law marriage) or that your brother would not raise your kids how you

Who Will Take Care of My Minor Children?

Let me first say that the people who, most certainly and without a doubt, need a Will are parents of minor children. Your Will is the only place you can nominate a guardian for your children.  There is no easy way to determine who gets custody if you die without a Will. Your children could wind up the center of an ugly court battle, be left with a relative who does not really want them or, in the worst-case scenario, be placed in the foster care system.

Who Will Get My Money and Property?

Married with Children. In most cases, a portion of the estate will pass to the surviving spouse. The actual portion that passes to the surviving spouse depends on a number of factors, including whether either spouse has children from a previous relationship. For example, if the deceased person had one child from a previous relationship and one child with the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse would get $150,000 plus half of the estate and the children would share equally in the remainder. If, however, neither spouse has children from a previous relationship (all of the children are children of the marriage), then the entire estate will pass to the surviving spouse.

Married with No Children. Generally, if the couple does not have children, the entire estate passes to the surviving spouse. This is the case in Minnesota, for example. In some states, however, a small portion may pass to the deceased person’s parents.

Single With Children. When a single person who has children dies without a Will, everything passes to the children. Keep in mind, however, that minor children cannot inherit assets.  The court will have to appoint someone to take care of the assets that pass to them.
This process can be expensive and time intensive.

Single With No Children. When a single person dies with no children, the person’s parent(s) will receive everything if they are living. Otherwise, it is most commonly divided equally among siblings, if there are any.

Bottom line: You may be able to avoid the potentially adverse consequences of dying intestate by making a Will or consulting with an estate planning attorney to determine how a Will might benefit you.

6 thoughts on “What Happens If I Die Without A Will?

  1. I just found out that my husbands sister and her husband do not have a will. They have a good amount of money and other assets (house on Lake Minnetonka, property in the Cayman Islands and a home in Edina).They married late and adopted a russian toddler. He is now 5. My sister in law is 54 years old and her husband is 56. He brought most of the money into the marraige 8 years ago. He has no siblings and his parents are deceased.
    They are going on a trip without their child at the end of this month. My sister in law just told me she is nervous traveling for the first time without their son as they have no will. Her husband will not have one made up.
    WHAT happens to this little boy if his parents die without a will? They have not appointed a guardian,either.

    Thank you.

    1. Hi Betsy – Thank you for your comment. As the article above explains, a will is the only place where parents can name a guardian for their minor children. If your sister-in-law or her husband have questions about setting up a will, they can contact Diana Marianetti (the author of this article) or any other estate planning attorney to address their specific questions. In addition, they can find resources and learn about the benefits of having a well-drafted estate plan here on epilawg.com.

      The Epilawg Team
      Maggie Green, Jamie Held, Jen Santini, and Jayne Sykora

  2. I have no surviving parents, children or grandchildren, spouse or civil partner. I do have,however, 3 surviving siblings, 2 deceased siblings (one of whom had 2 children).
    If I were to die intestate, who would inherit my estate?

    1. Thanks so much for the comment. Unfortunately, we cannot provide specific legal advice on this site. Please consult an estate planning attorney in your area for an answer to your question. Thank you for reading Epilawg!

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