What happens after someone dies without a valid will?

On Behalf of | Feb 5, 2024 | Estate Planning |

Estate planning is only an option once someone becomes an adult. Children generally cannot draft the state plans unless they become emancipated in their teenage years. Adults frequently require estate plans to protect their dependent family members or establish a legacy that influences how people remember them after they die.

An estate plan can include a variety of different documents, including powers of attorney and medical directives, but many people only ever draft a will. A will can name a guardian for minor children, clarify someone’s preferences about their memorial service and provide instructions regarding what assets their loved ones should inherit from their estate.

Ideally, those with significant personal property or families will have wills in place when they die. However, roughly two-thirds of all adults in the country do not currently have wills. What happens if someone dies without a will?

State law controls the probate process

The purpose of drafting a will is to create a legacy that aligns with someone’s personal values and current relationships. There are state-level laws across the United States that have authority if someone dies without a will or their family members successfully contest a will in probate court.

If someone does not have a will, then the courts use intestate succession laws to decide what happens with their property. Each state has unique rules, but there are certain elements that are relatively standard. Typically, someone’s immediate family members have the best chance of inheriting if they die without a will.

Someone’s marital status and whether or not they have children can influence who inherits from their estate when they die without a will. Those without spouses or children could have their assets pass to their parents, siblings or more distant family members.

In scenarios where the probate courts cannot identify any surviving family members, someone’s property might eventually transfer to the state. State escheat funds can take control over an intestate estate when someone does not have any living family. Individuals with unusual family situations, those with romantic partners they do not intend to marry and people who wish to leave money for charity or friends are among those who may find that intestate succession laws do not suit their needs.

Taking the time to draft a will can make a major difference for someone concerned about the well-being of their loved ones and how people remember them after their death.