Can a Girlfriend Take Over an Estate if No Will Was Left?

By Robin Elizabeth Margolis

A girlfriend cannot take over an estate if her male companion dies without leaving a will. State laws determine who inherits an estate if a man dies without making a will and those laws generally exclude his girlfriend. Nevertheless, she may still receive some of his property after he dies, even if he left no will.

Probate Courts

When a man dies without leaving a will, his estate falls under the power of a local probate court. The probate court appoints an administrator for the estate. All property that is solely in the deceased man's name will be distributed by the probate court and the administrator according to his state's intestate succession laws. These laws determine who inherits his property.

Intestate Succession Laws

While the intestate succession laws vary among states, typically the estate goes to the deceased man's legal wife and children. If he had no wife or children, the laws of intestate succession typically grant the property to other relatives, such as parents, brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews. A girlfriend can try to inherit from the estate by claiming she was his common-law wife. She also may have rights to certain non-probate assets, such as jointly-owned property and money.

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Legal Concubinage

In ancient times, men frequently established legal concubinage relationships with women in addition to, or instead of, a primary marriage. Long-term girlfriends often acquired rights to financial support from men's estates after their deaths. The spread of Christianity in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire ended legal concubinage for married men. These women had no legal rights of inheritance under subsequent British and American laws unless the men specifically left them property in a will. However, common-law wives could claim inheritance rights when their male companions died.

Common-Law Marriages

Common-law marriage is when a man and a woman, not already married to other people, form a relationship that resembles a marriage, but without a formal wedding ceremony or marriage license. Only a handful of states legally recognize common-law marriages. Common-law wives do inherit from their husbands' estates. However, very few states still recognize common-law marriage, and if a common-law marriage existed, a wife would have to prove it in court.

Joint Ownership

A girlfriend can also receive property from a deceased companion who died intestate if they jointly-owned property that was legally structured in writing to pass to her if he died first. For example, if they bought a home and held it as joint tenants, she would own the home after his death. She might also receive other property, such as annuities, life insurance and bank accounts, if she was designated in writing as the beneficiary of these accounts. None of these assets go through probate -- they go directly to her.

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The Rules of Inheritance

The rules of inheritance are set according to state law. Each state has its own statutes that explain which relatives have priority and how much inheritance they are are entitled to receive. These statutes, known as "laws of intestate succession," differ from state to state. However, there is a priority of heirs common in many state statutes.

South Carolina Marital Property and Dower Laws

In South Carolina, when a marriage comes to an end, property is divided between spouses in a manner that is fair and just based on the circumstances. However, if a spouse dies while the couple is still married, property is distributed by a different standard. In years past, a wife would be entitled to a "dower," an automatic one-third share of her deceased husband's property. Nowadays, the property a wife inherits depends on the terms of her husband's will, if he had one, and state law.

Wills in Ireland

Irish law concerning wills is governed by the Succession Act of 1965. This law is equally applied in all parts of the country. The purpose of a will in Ireland is the same as in most other jurisdictions: a legal means of allowing the testator to decide how his property will be disposed of after his death. It also allows him to appoint a guardian for his children and an executor for his estate. For an Irish will to be legal, all essential elements must be present, and it must conform to all relevant laws.

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