Who Inherits When Someone Dies?

By Marilyn Lindblad

One of the questions that inevitably arises when someone dies is the question of what will happen to the property she owned when she was alive. This is especially true when a wealthy person passes away, leaving behind a fortune that would surely change the life of whomever stands to inherit it. Who inherits when someone dies depends on whether the deceased had a last will and testament, as well the deceased's state of residence.

When There's a Will

Many people make a last will and testament before they die. A will gives an individual control over what happens to her money when she dies. In a will, an individual can bequeath individual items of personal property, such as jewelry and art, or bank accounts, real estate, stock and other assets. After her death, the local probate court administers her will, and the executor or personal representative named in the will ensures that her property is distributed according to her wishes.

Without a Will

When someone dies without having a will, the law determines who gets her property. Dying without a will is referred to as dying "intestate." When this is the case, a law called the "order of intestate succession" takes effect. Each state has its own order of succession. In New York, for example, a woman's surviving spouse, if she has one, inherits her entire estate unless she left children or grandchildren. If there are children, the surviving spouse gets $50,000 off the top of the estate plus one-half of whatever is left. If there is no surviving spouse, in New York the deceased's property will go to her children or, if no children survive her, to her parents. If there are no surviving children ore parents, her property goes to her brothers and sisters. If she has none, then her grandparents inherit, or her aunts and uncles, if she has no grandparents. If she has no aunts or uncles, her property goes to her grandparents' grandchildren or great grandchildren. If the deceased has no survivors in the order of succession, the State of New York gets her property.

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Paying the Creditors

Before the property of the deceased is distributed, her estate must pay her outstanding debts, including the cost of her burial and the cost of her final illness, if any. Individuals or businesses to which she owed money can file claims against her estate. If their claims are valid, the probate court will pay creditors' claims before it distributes any assets to the heirs or beneficiaries.

Designated Beneficiaries

Assets such as life insurance and retirement accounts pass on to the beneficiary or beneficiaries that the deceased designated before she died to receive those assets after her death. Assets that pass from a deceased to a designated beneficiary do so separate and apart from the probate process. Similarly, assets such as automobiles or real estate that the deceased held jointly with another person, where both people had a right of survivorship, pass directly to the designated survivor without going through probate.

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Colorado State Laws on Community Property When a Spouse Dies


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Florida's Law for Death and Estate Inheritance

If a Florida resident dies leaving a will, his real and personal property goes to the beneficiaries named in the document. If the decedent dies intestate, or without a will, the estate is subject to Florida's intestacy statutes. These statutes determine who receives estate property based on marital and kinship ties.

Hawaii Intestate Probate Laws

A properly executed will gives you the ability to freely distribute your assets after death. In Hawaii, if you don't leave a will or if it fails to meet certain requirements, your property will pass according to a rigid set of rules outlined by state law. These rules are inflexible, and they prioritize heirs based on their legal relationship to you. Surviving spouses and children take first, followed by parents and siblings, then grandparents. If no surviving family members can be found, your estate becomes the property of the state.

The Inheritance Hierarchy Without a Will in New York State

A person who dies without leaving a will is said to have died “intestate.” New York courts distribute intestate property according to a statutory scheme of succession and these laws apply only to property located in the state of New York. Laws of other states may apply to real property located outside of New York, even if the decedent had been a legal resident of the state. The intent of New York's intestate succession law is to distribute the estate in the manner in which the decedent likely would have had she left a will; the statutory scheme distributes the decedent's property to the closest surviving relatives first.

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