Dying without a Will – Laws of Intestate Succession

As has been stressed, you should have a will before you pass on. So, what are the consequences if you don’t. Simply that everything about the fate of your estate is out of your hands and your assets are distributed to your next of kin, i.e. your closest family members, even if that is not what you wanted. In other words, any non-family member or charity you would have wanted to be a beneficiary would not receive anything. And, in the rare case where you have no next of kin, your assets are taken by the state.

State as Executor

When a person dies without a will or has their will invalidated, for whatever reason, the legal term is that they die intestate. This means the state becomes the executor of the estate, i.e. is responsible for locating your legal heirs and distributing your probate estate. The state’s goal is to try and duplicate how the average person would disperse their estate if they had a will. They will not take into account your wishes, the needs of your family and relatives, or any other relationships.

You may also be intestate if a court determines your will is improperly drafted and deems it invalid. This is the primary concern when you create a will yourself.

Who are the “Next of Kin” in Inheritance?

The next of kin are those people who are legally designated as your closest family members. Inheritance laws do not distinguish between biological relations and adoptive relations. State intestate inheritance laws may be different from those who will get an inheritance from you when you die without a will.

Most states have community property laws where all jointly-owned property goes to the spouse. Ten states have common law properties, where ownership is defined in other ways, which affects how the property is distributed in a different way. It is usually split between your primary next of kin, your spouse and children. 

Whether you don’t have a spouse or you and your spouse jointly own property in a common property law state and don’t have children, in most states the next in line is your parents or grandparents followed by siblings, then nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles, and cousins.

See the Inheritance By Relationship table for your state in State-specific Estate Planning Information section.

General References

Kagan J. Intestate. Investopedia website. Updated: April 26, 2018. Accessed: October 14, 2019.

What Happens If You Die Without a Will? FindLaw website. Accessed: October 14, 2019.Understanding Intestacy: If You Die Without an Estate Plan. FindLaw website. Accessed: October 14, 2019.