Does a Will Leaving Everything to Your Spouse Go Through Probate?

By Heather Frances J.D.

Probate sounds intimidating and difficult to many people, but it is often required, even when you leave everything to your spouse. A will can be very helpful to your family to let them know what you wanted to happen with your property and can even appoint guardians for your minor children, but the will must be probated to be effective. However, there are also several ways to leave assets to your spouse outside the probate process.

Purposes of a Will

A will directs the transfer of your property after you die, though it can’t actually accomplish that transfer until it is properly administered through the probate process. Your will can also nominate guardians for your minor children if you and your spouse die together. However, your nomination of a guardian in your will is not binding and will often require the probate court to approve the nomination before the person you named actually becomes your child’s legal guardian. Without a will, the guardianship process may become complicated and may require a special separate proceeding.


Probate is the legal process by which ownership of property is transferred after a person’s death. Probate involves gathering your assets, paying your last debts and then distributing your remaining assets according to the terms of your will or, if you have no will, according to your state’s laws. Without probate, a will is just a piece of paper. Only after the will is properly admitted to probate can a court determine if the will is valid, and only then can your executor administer your estate.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan

Intestate Succession

If your will is not probated, other heirs could force the estate to be settled as if there is no will. In this case, your state’s laws known as intestate succession would determine who receives shares of your estate. Often, this will mean that your spouse receives only part of your estate rather than the entire estate as you had intended. If no will is probated, many states’ laws say that your spouse receives only part of your estate and the remainder is split among your children. Your spouse may receive even less if you have children from a previous relationship.

Nonprobate Assets

The probate process is only required for probate assets, but some of your assets may be nonprobate assets. Nonprobate assets are those that are transferred by a survivorship mechanism or contract that is triggered by your death. For example, you and your spouse may own your home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. If so, your home will pass automatically to your spouse when you die. Life insurance, a transfer-on-death bank account and retirement benefits are also frequently transferred as nonprobate assets because they are distributed directly to the beneficiaries you named. If all of your assets are nonprobate assets, probate and a will might not be necessary unless you need to consider guardianship of your minor children.

Protect your loved ones. Start My Estate Plan
FAQs on a Last Will & Testament


Related articles

North Carolina Laws Regarding Wills

Every state has its own specific statutes when it comes to wills. A will that doesn’t comply with North Carolina’s laws is generally void, and North Carolina will dispose of your property according to rules of inheritance, giving it to your most immediate kin regardless of your intentions. If you write your own will, it is always advisable to use an attorney to review it before you assume it to be valid, according to North Carolina’s statutes.

Standard Will Vs. Living Will

Planning your estate may involve creating several documents to address your end-of-life care before you die and your property after you die. Two of these documents may be a will and living will. A will directs the distribution of your assets after you die and a living will directs your health care while you are alive.

Legal Will Advantages & Disadvantages

A legal will is a document that details someone’s last wishes. When the person passes away, the probate court that oversees the decedent’s estate will use a valid will to distribute the estate property. For a will to be valid it must conform to the drafting requirements provided by the state’s probate code. Probate codes do vary, so when drafting a will be sure that yours conforms to your state’s standards. Consider using an online document provider or an attorney to ensure that any will you draft follows your state’s requirements.

LegalZoom. Legal help is here. Start Here. Wills. Trusts. Attorney help.

Related articles

Minnesota Laws on Unsupervised Probate

When you die, some of your assets may have to go through a probate proceeding. Generally, probate involves the ...

Does a Will in Arizona Have to Go Through Probate?

If you die with a valid will in Arizona, an Arizona probate court will typically oversee the administration of your ...

Transfer of Property After Dying Without a Will in Washington State

A will is your opportunity to leave final instructions for your loved ones, and it can address issues like guardianship ...

Does a Will Supersede Spousal Rights?

Generally, a person’s will governs the distribution of his assets when he dies. However, some rules apply to guide this ...

Browse by category
Ready to Begin? GET STARTED