Iowa Marriage Laws for Inheritance

By Heather Frances J.D.

Marriage can change your rights with regard to inheriting property -- both the inheritances you receive while married and inheritances you receive after your spouse dies. Iowa law protects inheritances you receive while you are married and gives significant rights to the surviving spouse. It is important to understand how these laws apply to your situation.

Receiving an Inheritance While Married

Iowa does not consider inheritances to be marital property, which means they are not divisible by a court in a divorce. So, if you receive an inheritance—before or during your marriage—it is your separate property and cannot be given to your spouse if you divorce. However, if you commingle—or mix—your inheritance with your marital property, a court may decide the inheritance has lost its special status and has become divisible. For example, if you inherit money but then combine that money with marital property and use the combination to purchase a house, the inheritance money has become too mixed with marital property to protect it from division upon divorce.

Inheritance by Will

If you create a valid Iowa will, your beneficiaries will usually inherit as described in your will. For your will to be valid, you must have the capacity to sign it, meaning you’re at least 18, of sound mind and able to understand what you are signing. Your will must also comply with Iowa’s legal formalities, such as being in writing and witnessed by two qualified witnesses. If you change your mind about your beneficiaries, you can change your will at any time by creating a new one.

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Elective Share

In Iowa, surviving spouses are permitted to choose between what they would inherit under a deceased spouse’s will and what they would inherit by Iowa’s "elective share" law. The elective share law provides that a surviving spouse is entitled to one-third of certain estate assets, such as real property and personal property that isn’t sold to pay the deceased spouse’s debts. Sometimes, this elective share is more beneficial to the surviving spouse than what was left to her under the will. For example, if your will states you want your estate evenly divided between your three children and your surviving spouse, your spouse’s share under the will would be one-fourth; in this case, your spouse might elect to take the one-third offered by state law rather than the one-fourth offered in your will.

Inheritance Without a Will

If you die without a will, Iowa law will determine how your property is distributed after your debts are paid and any jointly-owned property is distributed to the other owners. If your spouse survives you and you did not have any children from another partner, all of your property will go to your spouse. If your spouse survives you but you have children from another partner, your spouse will inherit half of your property—or at least $50,000—and your children will share what remains equally.

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Without proper estate planning, your property may be distributed very differently from the way you want it distributed when you die -- your kids could receive more than you wanted or your spouse might receive less. However, if you plan according to Wisconsin’s inheritance laws, you can protect your assets and your beneficiaries from an undesirable accidental result.

Can a Spouse in Arizona Inherit Property When the Other Spouse Dies?

The fact that Arizona is a community property state complicates its inheritance statutes to some extent. Under community property law, spouses already equally own everything acquired during marriage. Therefore, your spouse can only bequeath half your community property, either through the conveyance of a will or -- if he dies without a will -- through the Arizona laws of intestate succession. Intestate succession is an order of inheritance based on degree of kinship. A spouse is a decedent’s most closely related heir, so you’re inevitably entitled to inherit some portion of the estate.

Does My Spouse Inherit Everything When I Die?

Whether your spouse inherits your entire estate depends on your state's laws. If you die without a will, your estate is divided according to state intestacy laws. If you had a will, your spouse's share is partly dependent on what you left her and whether you have surviving children or parents. Any part of your estate not subject to your state's estate laws, such as your retirement account, automatically belongs to the person you put as beneficiary on the account paperwork. Property you owned jointly with your spouse, such as your home, usually belongs to her as soon as you die.

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