The Consequences of Dying Without a Will
What will happen to my money and possessions if I die without a will?
If you pass away without a will, what happens to your assets will be determined by the laws of your state of residence. Every state has intestacy laws in place to distribute property and assets to a deceased person's closest relatives when there is no will or trust. These laws vary from state-to-state.
Here is a general (not state-specific) breakdown of what can happen to a person's assets, depending on whom they leave behind.
Married with children : When a married person with children passes away without a will, property, investments and financial accounts that are "jointly owned" with a right of survivorship automatically go to the surviving co-owner (typically a spouse or child) without going through probate, which is the legal process that distributes a deceased person's assets.
For all other property or individual financial accounts, the laws of most states award one-third or one-half to the surviving spouse, while the rest goes to the children.
Married with no children or grandchildren : Some states award the entire estate to the surviving spouse, or everything up to a certain amount (for example, the first $100,000). Some states award only one-third to one-half of the decedent's separately owned assets to the surviving spouse, with the remainder generally going to the deceased person's parents, or if the parents are dead, to brothers and sisters.
Jointly owned property, investments, financial accounts, or community property automatically goes to the surviving co-owner.
Single with children : State laws provide that the entire estate goes to the children, in equal shares. If an adult child of the decedent has died, then that child's children (the decedent's grandchildren) will receive a distribution from the decedent's estate.
Single with no children or grandchildren : In this situation, most state laws favor the deceased person's parents. If both parents are deceased, many states divide the property among the brothers and sisters, or if they are not living, their children (i.e., the deceased's nieces and nephews). If there are no nieces and nephews, it goes to the next of kin. If there are no family members living, then the state takes the property.
Make a Will
To ensure your assets go to those you want to receive them, you need to create a will. If you have a simple estate and an uncomplicated family situation, there are several good, low-cost, do-it-yourself resources that can help.
If you need assistance or if you have a complicated financial situation, blended family or have considerable assets, you should hire an attorney. An experienced attorney can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and squabbles after you are gone. Costs will vary depending on where you reside, but you can expect to pay anywhere between $200 and $1,000 for a will.
The National Academy of Elder Law Attorney and the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils are good resources that have online directories to help you find someone in your area. If money is tight, check with your state's bar association to find low-cost legal help in your area. Or call the Eldercare Locator at 800-677-1116 for a referral.
Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.
Published August 3, 2018