What Happens When Someone Dies Without a Will?

what happens when someone dies without a will

What does a will do?

Many people use a will to leave instructions about what should happen to their assets and property after they die.

A will is a simple, inexpensive legal document that states someone’s final wishes. It’s used by the county court to make sure those wishes are carried out.

Some people also use a will to:

  • Name an executor to carry out the terms of the will
  • Name someone to manage property left to minor children
  • Decide how debts and taxes will be paid
  • Provide for pets
  • Serve as a backup to a living trust

A will doesn’t cover every situation, but it’s much better than having nothing in place.


What happens when someone doesn’t have a will?

When someone dies without a will, it’s called dying “intestate.” When that happens, none of the potential heirs has any say over who gets their assets and property (the estate).

The estate goes into probate, which is a legal process. When there’s no will, the probate court uses the laws of the state to decide who inherits what.

Probate can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how complicated the estate is. Legal fees are paid out of the estate and it often gets expensive.


What happens when an estate without a will goes into probate?

The intestate succession laws that decide who will inherit are different in every state. Usually, the estate will be split between the surviving spouse and children.

If someone is single with no children, the state will decide which relatives will inherit. If no relatives can be found, the entire estate goes to the state.

Usually, only spouses, registered domestic partners, and blood relatives can inherit under intestate laws. Unmarried partners, friends, and charities get nothing.


Bottom line

If your older adult wants their property to be given to certain people or organizations after they pass away, they’ll need a will at the very least.

A will is especially important if they plan to give assets to their unmarried partner, close friends, or charities. Otherwise, what happens to their property will be entirely up to the court and certain people or groups will be left out because of current laws.

A will also saves family the headache and costs of a prolonged probate.

For more complex situations or to accomplish things that can’t be included in a will, it’s best to talk with a lawyer to see if a trust or estate plan would work better.


You might also like:
How an Elder Law Attorney Can Help Seniors and Caregivers
5 Important Legal Documents for Caregivers
What Is a Living Will and Why Do Seniors Need One?


By DailyCaring Editorial Team
Sources: Nolo, Nolo (probate), Nolo (wills)
Image: The Jayson Law Group, LLC

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