Beneficiaries Without a Will in Tennessee

By Beverly Bird

Technically, when a decedent dies without a will, he doesn’t leave beneficiaries. He leaves heirs -- individuals who are so closely related to him that they inherit his property by state law. However, those heirs become beneficiaries of his estate when the probate process transfers ownership of his assets to them. Tennessee requires probate of estates with or without a will. The greatest difference is that the decedent does not get to choose his beneficiaries if he doesn’t leave a will, specifying to whom he wants his property to pass. Tennessee's intestacy laws decide this for him.

Surviving Spouses

In Tennessee, spouses are first in line to inherit when a decedent dies without a will. How much of the estate a spouse receives depends on whether the decedent also left any children or grandchildren, which the law calls “issue.” If the decedent left no issue, his spouse receives the entirety of his estate under Tennessee’s laws of intestate succession. If he did leave issue, his spouse's portion would equal at least one-third of the estate.

Children and Grandchildren

Tennessee’s inheritance laws become complex when factoring in the decedent’s children and grandchildren. If he had children, they equally share two-thirds of their parent's estate, after the bequest of one-third to his spouse. For example, if his estate is worth $120,000, his spouse would receive property valued at $40,000 and his children would divide property valued at $80,000. If he left five children, they would each receive $16,000. If he left five children and five grandchildren, the court would divide the two-thirds share of his estate six ways – one share for each of his children, and one share to be divided equally among his grandchildren. His five children would each receive about $13,333, and his grandchildren would divide about $13,333 among them, receiving about $2,667 each. Under Tennessee law, children include adopted children and infants conceived prior to the decedent’s death but born after. Children inherit the entire estate when the decedent leaves no surviving spouse.

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Spousal Election

Tennessee law includes another complex factor that might result in the decedent's spouse receiving more than one-third of his estate. She can claim a "child's share" instead, if this amounts to more than one-third. The child's share is based on the value of the entire estate, as though she did not exist. For example, if the decedent left only one child, and his estate is valued at $100,000, that child would inherit $100,000. His spouse can elect to equally share that $100,000 with the child, which would result in an inheritance of $50,000, greater than her one-third share of $33,333.

Other Relatives

Generally, a decedent’s parents or siblings would become beneficiaries of his intestate estate only if he left no spouse, children or grandchildren. In this case, Tennessee’s intestate succession laws bequeath his entire estate 50/50 between his parents if they are both living. Otherwise, his sole surviving parent receives his entire estate. If both his parents predecease him, his siblings would inherit his estate in equal shares. If any of his siblings predeceased him, their issue would receive their parents’ share, divided equally among them. Half brothers and sisters are treated the same as full siblings under Tennessee law.

Other Factors

Tennessee courts usually probate an estate according to intestacy laws if the decedent did leave a will, but his loved ones can’t locate the original. In this case, to prevent intestate succession, one of the will's beneficiaries would have to petition the court to accept a copy of the will for probate instead. The court will sometimes allow this if the beneficiary can provide evidence that the original will was lost and that the decedent didn’t revoke it by tearing up or destroying it. Heirs only receive their bequests after payment of all probate costs and the decedent’s taxes and debts.

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Estate Laws Without Wills in the State of Tennessee


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What If an Heir Dies?

The impact of an heir’s death on the probate process depends a great deal on whether he is also a beneficiary. An heir is a relative entitled to inherit from the decedent by law -- heirs inherit when the decedent dies without a will. Beneficiaries are those individuals named in a decedent’s will to receive his property. They may or may not be related to him. An individual can be both an heir and a beneficiary when he's bequeathed property in a will and is also related to the decedent, so he would have stood to inherit even if the decedent had not left a will.

How to Determine Who Is an Heir

Although the terms "heir" and "beneficiary" are often used as though they mean the same thing, they do not. Beneficiaries are parties who inherit according to a will, while heirs inherit based on the rules of descent and distribution. Thus, you cannot determine heirs by looking to a last will and testament because parties named in a will are considered beneficiaries.

Probate Laws on the Next of Kin

When someone dies without a will, state laws -- the so-called "laws of intestate succession" -- determine who inherits the estate. If the deceased left a surviving spouse or children, these people are considered "next of kin" and generally inherit the entire estate. Although state laws vary, there is a common descent and distribution scheme that applies to determine who is next of kin -- that is, next in line to inherit -- if there is no surviving spouse or children.

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