What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will?

By Chris Blank

If you die without a will or other means of specifying how to distribute your estate, the law states that you have died "intestate." As a result, the distribution of your property may or may not be in line with your wishes. Consult with a legal professional who specializes in wills and estates about specific questions pertaining to your circumstances.

Dying Intestate

Within a well drafted will, you will state how you want your estate distributed and who will act as executor(s) to administer the distribution of your estate and payment of your creditors. When you die without a valid will, the state determines how your assets will be distributed and appoints an administrator who takes on much the same duties as a named executor. Laws on distribution and administrator appointments vary by state.

Division of Property

Many states have a predetermined system to distribute the property of a person who dies intestate, known as intestate succession. In many states, intestate succession determines that a living spouse inherits the bulk of the property, along with any living children. If the intestate person is not married and has no children, the parents often inherit the estate. Siblings may also inherit part of the estate. In many cases, grandchildren only inherit property from the estate if their parents are dead. Stepchildren, nieces and nephews or other relatives often inherit nothing.

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Administration of Final Affairs

Courts often prefer to appoint family members to perform the role of administrator, however, the procedure involves meeting specified requirements that may complicate matters. In addition, different family members may have disputes about who should serve as administrator; such disputes may delay the distribution of the estate.

Community Property

Community property is defined as property or assets accumulated during a marriage by members of a married couple, with exceptions for individual inheritances, gifts and property owned separately by each spouse before the marriage. Community property laws in nine states -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin -- impact the process of intestate succession. In these states, the spouse legally owns half of of the marital property; only the remaining half is subject to distribution under intestate succession rules.

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Administrator Responsibilities for Estate Sales Without a Will

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Can I Decline Probate?

“Probate” is a term used to describe the legal process of distributing the estate of a deceased individual, and it involves the appointment of a probate judge who is tasked with supervising the distribution of the decedent's assets. Whether or not probate is legally necessary will depend on several factors. Under the right circumstances, the beneficiaries may properly decline to probate.

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.

Arizona Intestacy Laws & Distribution

It’s human nature to avoid thinking about death, so it’s not surprising that more than 70 percent of Americans die without a will each year, according to Catholic Relief Services. A will specifically states your wishes regarding the distribution of your estate. However, if you die intestate, or without a will, the state has the final word. When this occurs, your heirs may inherit your property contrary to your wishes.

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