Does a Wife Inherit the Land of a Deceased Husband?

By Christine Funk, J.D.

Does a Wife Inherit the Land of a Deceased Husband?

By Christine Funk, J.D.

When a married man dies, whether his wife inherits the land he owned depends on the circumstances. The legal actions the man took—or didn't take—while he was alive dictate whether his spouse becomes the owner of his property.

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With a Revocable Living Trust

A revocable living trust is a mechanism many people use to transfer their property to loved ones upon their death. When setting up a revocable living trust, they transfer their property, including land, to the trust. To maximize the benefits of a trust, it's advisable to transfer as many assets as possible into it.

Upon one's death, a trustee charged with distributing the property takes the necessary steps to transfer the property to the identified recipient, who could be the spouse or another beneficiary. A huge benefit to this type of document is that it avoids the probate process.

With a Last Will and Testament

When there is a last will and testament, the terms generally dictate the distribution of property. However, there are some caveats. Many states do not allow a husband to disinherit a wife completely unless there is a valid prenuptial agreement signed by both parties that acknowledges the husband's intent to leave the wife nothing. However, if the will states that the wife inherits the land, this is still not the end of the analysis.

Under a will, before the distribution of any property can take place, the executor named by the deceased individual must pay that person's final debts, including taxes owed. If, for example, a man has tied up his wealth in a single piece of property worth $1 million and owes $400,000 in debt, the executor may need to sell the property to make good on the debt. Of course, the balance of the money received from the sale of the property, $600,000, transfers to the wife if she is the sole beneficiary. If, on the other hand, there are children included in the will, the money passes according to the percentages listed in the document.

With Property Held in Joint Tenancy

Joint tenancy, sometimes referred to as tenancy by the entirety, is a way to share property ownership with another person. When spouses own property in joint tenancy and one spouse dies, the asset immediately becomes the sole property of the surviving spouse by right of survivorship and will not have to go through probate

When it comes to this case, the terms of a revocable living trust or a last will and testament are of no consequence. Joint tenancy trumps other documents addressing what happens to the property. It is important to note that if any taxes on the estate are owed, the recipient is likely to be held liable for that payment.

When No Death Documents Exist

When someone dies without a will or trust, they die intestate, and each state has laws regarding intestacy. Assuming no rights of survivorship, state intestacy laws dictate how to distribute the deceased individual's property. Of course, laws vary by state, but the surviving spouse is generally the primary heir. Children may also inherit as secondary heirs. Most states recognize parents and then siblings as next in line when a person dies without a will.

In some states, whether a wife inherits exclusively or must share the estate with children depends on the structure of the family. For example, some states recognize the rights of children born to a prior union differently than the rights of children of the present marriage.

Protecting your loved ones from undue taxes and unnecessary family disputes is one of the best things you can do to prepare your family for your death. Make sure you have all the necessary documents in place so that there won't be any added stress or confusion when the time comes. While it is possible to create a last will and testament yourself, consider the assistance of a qualified estate planning attorney to ensure your documents are valid and enforceable.

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.