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What happens if I die without a will?

State law will step in to distribute your assets — and it can get complicated.

If you pass away before designating which of your heirs will receive certain assets, you’ve died “intestate.” This means 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 provide clarity for your loved ones.

How is my property split without a will?

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 where you live.

I own property in more than one state. How will that be distributed?

If you live in one state and own property in a different state (or states), the intestacy laws of those individual states will apply. Under those laws, your property could end up with several different sets of beneficiaries.

What happens to my minor children if I die without a will?

If your children are minors and you don’t have a will — or haven’t nominated a legal guardian in your will — the court will appoint one upon your death.

This applies to both biological and adopted children.

What happens to my pet if I die without a will?

Technically, pets are considered property under the law. So if you die without a will, your pet will follow whatever the intestate succession laws dictate.

But designating a caretaker in your will can help to ensure your pet ends up in a loving home.

What is intestate succession?

Intestate laws dictate what happens if you die without a will, and intestate succession refers to how your assets are transferred upon your death. The court will determine the distribution of your assets, and the order in which they will be passed on to your relatives. The court may also appoint an executor who’s’ responsible for repaying debts and liquidating assets.

The laws vary across the country, and are based on the state the deceased resided in. In most states, the surviving spouse inherits most or all of the assets — even if the deceased has living parents or siblings.

Intestate succession doesn’t apply to some property types, including life insurance proceeds and deeds.

Does probate apply if there’s no will?

Yes. If the deceased didn’t leave a will, the court will determine who is entitled to the assets. It will then nominate an administrator to manage the probate process — which can include notifying creditors, paying debts and taxes, and taking an inventory of assets.

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Who needs a will?

Anyone who’s married or has kids or assets should put together a will. The document will clearly lay out your wishes and prevent conflict between your family members when you’re gone.

You can easily create a will online, and with the Uniform Electronic Wills Act, more states are accepting electronic wills and signatures.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people who are preparing to return to their physical workplaces are writing wills, including teachers and essential workers.

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 this 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 that can walk you through the process of drafting an online will on your own. This typically costs between $20 and $100. Though outdated versions are cheaper, they often aren’t accurate.

Bottom line

Specifying where your assets and belongings should go when you die helps your relatives carry out your wishes and relieves pressure from grieving loved ones.

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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