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What Happens if a Person Dies Without a will?

Nicole Madison
By
Updated May 17, 2024
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When a person dies without a will, the distribution of his assets depends on the jurisdiction in which he lived. In most cases, however, a court system decides how the assets should be distributed based on the jurisdiction's laws. A court may also decide who will obtain guardianship of any children of the deceased. When a person dies intestate, which means without a will, his estate goes through probate, which is a court process for settling the deceased party’s affairs and distributing his assets. Each jurisdiction has its own laws for distributing assets in the absence of a will, but most apply set percentages to splitting the deceased’s assets between his surviving spouse and children, regardless of their ages.

In the event that a married person dies without a will, his spouse usually receives a significant percentage of the assets he left behind. In many jurisdictions, a surviving spouse receives all of the community property, which is property that is jointly owned by a married couple. The surviving spouse then receives either a third or one half of the assets the deceased owned separately. The remainder of the deceased party’s assets are usually split among his surviving children. If the deceased party did not have children, the remaining assets may be distributed among his surviving parents or his siblings if his parents are also deceased.

If a person who was unmarried dies without a will, his assets are usually handled a bit differently. If the party who died intestate had children, jurisdiction laws usually stipulate that the party’s assets are split equally among the children. For example, if a single person had two children, each child would receive 50 percent of his assets. If an unmarried individual dies without a will and did not have children, his parents normally receive all of his assets. In the event that his parents are no longer living, his siblings, including any half siblings, usually receive his assets.

Dying without a will means the deceased party’s wishes concerning the distribution of his assets are not considered. If he wanted to leave his vacation home to his brother rather than one of his children, the court has no way of knowing that and must follow the applicable laws of the jurisdiction. Additionally, the costs of completing probate are usually higher in the absence of the will. The costs are usually taken from the assets the deceased party left behind.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison , Writer
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By Mor — On Dec 07, 2014

@pastanaga - Well, in my experience most of the time you're required to change a will when you do something like buy a house, or marry someone. My mother recently remarried a lovely man who had his own property and grandchildren and they had to do all kinds of legal arrangements to figure out what would happen in the event of someone's death.

Since there are two families involved you have to make sure that the death of one person in the partnership isn't going to give the relatives the ability to kick the other person out of their home or anything like that.

By pastanaga — On Dec 07, 2014

@bythewell - In some ways I think that having an old will that hasn't been updated is worse than having no will at all, especially if major life events have happened since the will was completed. If you have remarried or have grandchildren or have bought property or anything like that, then you're going to end up with legal hassles if the only will that exists is one that doesn't make provisions for them.

In my family there was a lot of turmoil after my grandfather passed away because he hadn't left a current will and there was a family business that needed to be passed on. Even though the family was usually on good terms they definitely did not get on well over that.

For the sake of family harmony, I think it's a good idea to have a current will and keep it updated.

By bythewell — On Dec 06, 2014

My father died without a will, but it didn't turn out to be a big deal. The most difficult thing was just finding all the different accounts and assets to deal with them, rather than having to make decisions on who got what. He was separated from my mother and there are three children, but we just decided to divide everything equally.

I guess it helped that there were no complicated circumstances, like him owning property or anything like that and we were all on good terms with each other (even him and our mother) so there wasn't any bad blood to consider.

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison

Writer

Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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