What Are the Basic Principles of Inheritance?

By David Carnes

How your property is distributed after you die depends on the probate law of your state. If you die with a valid will, your property will generally be distributed according to your will, although certain restrictions exist. If you die without a will, your property will be distributed according to state laws. Taxes might be taken out of your estate before any assets are distributed.

Requirements for a Valid Will

Your will must be valid under state law to be enforceable. It must clearly state that it is designed to provide instructions on the distribution of your property after you die. It must provide reasonably clear instructions on the distribution of your property. Many states require you to name an executor, who is responsible for administering your property during the probate process. You must sign your will in the presence of two or three witnesses, depending on the state. Your will may be declared invalid if you were not of sound mind when you signed it, or if someone exerted "undue influence" over your bequests.

Restrictions of Will Bequests

In most states, you cannot completely disinherit your spouse without his permission--state laws require you to leave him a certain minimum share. You can disinherit your children, however, in every state except Louisiana. Except for these restrictions, you are generally free to leave your property to whomever you please. Nevertheless, your choice of heirs may raise doubts. Leaving your estate to your cat may raise doubts about your soundness of mind, for example, while leaving it all to your lawyer may raise questions of undue influence.

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Intestate Succession

Intestate succession laws determine how your property will be distributed if you die without a will, or if your will is declared invalid. Although state laws differ, 19 states have chosen to enact some version of the Uniform Probate Code. The Uniform Probate Code was drafted by legal scholars in an attempt to make state probate laws more consistent with each other. Under the Uniform Probate Code, your estate will be distributed among your relatives.

Distribution Among Your Relatives

Under the Uniform Probate Code's intestate succession laws, your spouse will be given first priority in inheriting your estate. He may be given all of your estate, or the first $200,000 plus 75 percent of the rest of it, or some other sum depending on which of your other relatives survive you. Your descendents are given second priority -- they may get nothing if your spouse survives you, they may share in any amounts not given to your spouse, or they may share your entire estate if your spouse does not survive you. Your parents and siblings will be assigned lower priorities. If you die without living relatives, your estate will pass to the state government.

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Texas Inheritance Laws Without a Will
 

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Questions About Wills

A will is a document that explains how you want your property distributed when you die, according to the American Bar Association. It may also explain who should take care of your estate's business, who should take care of your minor children and similar matters. Understanding the most common questions about wills can help you ensure you're making solid estate planning decisions for you and your family. Consult an attorney if you have any remaining questions about wills.

The Inheritance Hierarchy Without a Will in New York State

A person who dies without leaving a will is said to have died “intestate.” New York courts distribute intestate property according to a statutory scheme of succession and these laws apply only to property located in the state of New York. Laws of other states may apply to real property located outside of New York, even if the decedent had been a legal resident of the state. The intent of New York's intestate succession law is to distribute the estate in the manner in which the decedent likely would have had she left a will; the statutory scheme distributes the decedent's property to the closest surviving relatives first.

Can an Heir Be Deleted From a Property Inheritance?

When someone leaves a will, he can bequeath his property to anyone he chooses. With the exception of his spouse in some jurisdictions, he can also omit or disinherit anyone he likes. Heirs have far more rights when a loved one dies intestate, or without a will. In this case, a statutory code takes over, determining who inherits his property. Depending on how closely related an heir is to the deceased, it might be impossible to “delete” him.

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