What Happens to Assets with No Next of Kin?

By Laura Payet

What Happens to Assets with No Next of Kin?

By Laura Payet

When a person passes away without a valid will, he is said to have died intestate. In this situation, state intestacy laws determine the distribution of his assets. Although these laws vary by state, in general, they specify that those assets go to the next of kin. In the absence of any next of kin, assets are typically distributed among more distant relatives or, if no relatives can be found, to the state itself as a last resort.

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State Intestate Succession Laws

If a deceased person has left a valid will, that document controls the distribution of all the property in his estate, including bank and investment accounts, real estate, and personal property. Although some state laws prohibit completely disinheriting close family, such as a current spouse or children who may depend on the deceased for support, in general, a person can leave his assets to anyone he wishes—whether it be family, friends, or charitable organizations.

State intestacy laws are designed to help the deceased's property make its way into the hands of relatives, not the state's coffers. These laws, also called laws of intestate succession, come into play only where the deceased failed to leave a valid will. Under most state intestacy laws, the spouse and children are first in line to inherit. If the deceased was not married and without children, his assets pass to his parents, followed by his siblings and his sibling's children. If none of these relatives survives, some states look to grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, or other distant blood relatives. If no blood relatives can be found, then the state takes control of the assets. In legal terms, the property escheats to the state.

It is rare for an estate to escheat to the state because intestacy laws are written to prevent it. However, intestacy laws leave out close friends, favored charitable causes, and unmarried partners. As a consequence, property might end up with an estranged parent instead of a life partner.

The Probate Process

After a death, the state court responsible for probate cases appoints a personal representative to manage the estate. This person, sometimes called an executor or administrator, inventories the estate's assets, ascertains and pays off any remaining debts and taxes with funds from the estate, and distributes the remainder of the assets to the heirs and beneficiaries.

In cases where there is a will, the court generally appoints as personal representative the individual designated in the will. Without a will, someone must petition the court to be appointed. State law sets out a list of individuals who may be appointed executor in order of priority, typically beginning with a surviving spouse or children or other heirs. If there are no legal heirs, typically the law permits the court to appoint any legally competent person. The personal representative has the job of finding the deceased's heirs. If she cannot locate them through diligent review of their records, she may need to hire professional investigators or researchers to do so.

When a loved one passes away without a will, it can be difficult to know what to do. Attempting to manage the estate left behind can seem overwhelming, but you don't have to handle it alone. An online service provider can offer information about the process and help connect you with an attorney at a reasonable cost.

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.