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.
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 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.
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.