What happens if I die without a will?

Your estate will likely be split among family — but establishing a will may not be as daunting as you think.

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If you pass away before designating which of your heirs will receive certain assets, the laws of your state will determine what happens. Typically, your assets will be distributed to relatives in a particular order. But if you want to have a say in things, even a simple will can help provide clarity.

How is my property split without a will?

Exactly what happens to your belongings if you die without a will is determined first by which state you live in, then by the family you leave behind.

The following outcomes are contingent on the laws of your state, but probable scenarios include:

  • If you’re single without children. In this situation, your entire estate would go to your parents. But if one or more is no longer living, it’s divided equally among the rest of your nuclear family — siblings or a single parent if applicable.
  • If you’re single with children. When your biological or legally adopted children are involved, the estate will likely be distributed to them in equal shares. If your children are deceased, the state distributes your assets to relatives in order of priority; first, to your grandchildren. Then, it’s on to your parents, siblings, grandparents and finally, relatives of your deceased spouse.
  • If you’re married without children. With marriage, it gets a bit more complicated. Shared property likely goes to your surviving spouse. But property you owned separately from your partner is distributed among your surviving spouse, siblings and parents.
  • If you’re married with children. In this case, the entire estate usually goes to your surviving spouse, as long as the kids are theirs, too — either biologically or by legal adoption. This includes stepchildren who have been legally adopted. Otherwise, your spouse will get half of the assets with the remaining portion passed on to your kids.
  • If you’re unmarried but a couple. Most states only recognize relatives. So if you’re unmarried but living with your significant other, your estate still goes to your family when you die.
  • If you’re in a domestic partnership. Not all states recognize domestic partnerships. If the state approves, then your domestic partner would inherit your estate. But since laws vary by state, double check the estate planning laws for yours.

What is intestate succession?

Intestate is the legal term describing the scenario in which you die without a will. So intestate succession refers to how your assets are distributed thereafter.

How much will it cost me to put together a will?

The average cost of writing a will varies widely and depends on how complicated your estate is to divide. But in general, be prepared to budget between $150 and $1,500. Options for drafting the deed include:

  • Writing a will yourself. If your assets and inheritors are relatively straightforward, writing your own will can be a valid option. Plus, it’s free. Include all critical information and get witnesses to sign off once it’s complete. Store it in a secure place and consider giving a copy to a loved one for safekeeping.
  • Hiring an attorney. A lawyer’s job is to ensure nothing slips through the cracks, so this is a good choice if you want an airtight legal document or if your estate is more complicated. Usually, you’ll buy a will package from an attorney at a flat rate. The average cost ranges from $150 to $600, but increases if you’re married or want to include other services like estate planning.
  • Filling out premade forms. Premade forms are available online and off, and are often $20 or less. Some are even free. It’s a bare-bones approach that usually takes the shape of a fill-in-the-blanks template. But if your assets aren’t too complicated and you’ve got the necessary information on hand, it’s possible to find forms that are valid in every state.
  • Using online software. You can purchase software to walk you through the process of drafting a will. This typically costs between $100 and $200. Though outdated versions are cheaper, they often aren’t accurate.

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Bottom line

Specifying where your assets and belongings should go when you die helps your relatives carry out your wishes and rest easier after you’re gone.

Taking the time to plan your estate — including naming an executor and securing life insurance for yourself — is another way to make sure your loved ones are protected in the future.

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