What will happen if I die without a will?

Dying without a will or dying "intestate" allows the assets of the deceased to be distributed through probate, which is an extensive and expensive legal process to determine who inherits the assets of an estate. Unfortunately, depending on state laws and the complexity of the estate, probate can take months or years to complete.

So what will happen to your assets if you die without a will? Intestacy laws vary by state, which means your state laws will determine how your assets will be divided between your surviving children and your spouse. If you do not have children or a spouse, intestacy laws will determine which of your closest blood relatives will inherit your property.

Common probated assets

If you do not have a will assets which commonly go through probate include assets without a beneficiary designation and those which are in the deceased's name. The following are probated assets:

  • A life insurance policy made payable to an estate.
  • A retirement plan made payable to an estate.
  • A home in someone's individual name.
  • A bank account or investment account in an individual name.

Non-probated assets

There are several types of assets that will not be probated. Common non-probated assets include:

  • A bank account which is owned in trust and has a specific designated beneficiary.
  • A home owned with joint tenants with right of survivorship.
  • A retirement account which lists the spouse as the beneficiary.
  • A life insurance policy which lists the spouse as the beneficiary.
  • A bank account which gives another person right of survivorship or which is titled in the name of a living trust.
  • Life insurance proceeds.
  • Property held in a living trust.
  • Funds in a payable-on-death bank account.
  • Stocks or other securities held in a transfer-on-death account.

For many of the accounts listed above the beneficiary designation will be established at the time the account is created. To find out who will inherit the property you will need to find the appropriate documents. The assigned executor will manage distribution of the deceased's assets, and if there is not designated executor, the court will assign one.

Rules of Intestate Succession

Having a will allows an individual to determine how they would like to distribute their assets. If you die without a will intestate laws will determine how your assets are distributed. In most states this means your assets will be distributed to spouses, registered domestic partners (in states where that's an option), and blood relatives. Spouses generally get the largest share of the remaining property and assets. Unmarried partners, charities or friends generally do not inherit property if there is not a will. If the deceased does not have any blood relatives, the state takes the assets.

Certain relatives could also be barred from inheriting under intestate laws. Those who may be barred can include anyone whose criminal actions caused the death of the deceased or a parent who abandoned or refused to support a child.

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