What Happens to Assets With No Next of Kin?

By Heather Frances J.D.

When someone dies without clear heirs or beneficiaries, it may be difficult for the court to correctly distribute the estate’s assets. State laws establish which relatives can share in the deceased's assets and what happens to those assets when no relatives are available to inherit. The laws that govern this process vary from state to state, though many states’ laws are similar.


A will is your tool to direct the distribution of your assets after you die. Though some states limit your ability to completely disinherit close relatives, such as a spouse, you may generally leave your property to anyone you choose. You may also name secondary beneficiaries who would inherit if your primary beneficiaries die before you. For example, you could name your spouse as your primary beneficiary and your friend as your secondary beneficiary; if your wife died before you, your entire estate would go to your friend. If all of the beneficiaries listed in your will die before you, your estate will pass according to your state’s intestate succession laws.

Intestate Succession

Intestate succession laws, which vary from state to state, direct the distribution of your assets if you die without a will. Generally, state laws provide that your estate will pass first to your spouse, though some states limit your spouse’s share if you have children from a prior relationship. If you have no surviving spouse, your children will likely be next in line to inherit, followed by your parents, siblings and then the children of siblings. If none of these relatives survives, some state laws may permit your grandparents and their descendants or other next of kin, such as aunts, uncles and cousins, to inherit your assets. Each state’s rules vary on where this list of relatives terminates.

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Locating Heirs

After you die, the court in your state that administers probate cases appoints a personal representative for your estate, sometimes called an executor or administrator of the estate. The court issues to this personal representative documents, or letters testamentary, which grant the authority to act on behalf of the estate, including gathering assets, paying last debts and expenses, and distributing the remainder of your estate to the beneficiaries. One of the personal representative’s responsibilities is to identify and locate the estate’s heirs. If your personal representative is a close friend or relative, this may be an easy task; otherwise, he may have to hire expert researchers to find your heirs.


If you die without a will or you leave a will but no named beneficiaries survive you, state law usually directs that the estate's assets be given to extended family members. But it is possible for someone to die leaving no one who qualifies to inherit either under the will or under intestate succession, depending where the list of "family" is cut off by state law. In such cases, the assets of the estate will be given to the state. This is known as the doctrine of escheat. For example, Ohio law directs the relevant county’s prosecuting attorney to collect the decedent's estate and turn it over to the county treasurer for use in the county’s school system.

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Probate Laws on the Next of Kin


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How to Prepare a Will

A will is a document in which a person describes the management and distribution of her estate after her death. Per common law, a "will" disposed of real property while a "testament" disposed of personal property, but today the courts use the terms interchangeably. No state requires a will, but persons dying without wills cede to the state all decisions about estate distribution. With a will, a testator makes her own inheritance decisions, selects an appropriate executor for her estate, and names a guardian to raise her minor children in the event of her death.

The Hierarchy of Heirs

The hierarchy of heirs is determined by laws that govern inheritance in each state. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code and have based their inheritance laws on its recommendations. The Uniform Probate Code provides rules concerning who is entitled to inherit a deceased relative's property/estate if no last will and testament was executed. Although laws may vary somewhat by state, typically the hierarchy of heirs is intended to divide the estate fairly among surviving family members.

What Are the Basic Principles of Inheritance?

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.

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