Commentary

What Happens When You Die Without a Will Is Not Pretty

We all know we are supposed to do estate planning- but not all of us get around to it.

So what happens if you don’t have a will when you die?

Your estate will be distributed according to state laws- which may – but most assuredly may not – be the way you wanted.

Dying without a will is called dying “intestate.” Each state has laws that determine what will happen to your estate if you don’t have a will.

If you are married when you die- some states award one-third to one-half of your estate to your spouse- with the rest divided among your children or- if you don’t have children- to other living relatives such as your parents or siblings.

If you are single- most states provide that your estate will go to your children or to other living relatives if you don’t have children. If you have absolutely no living relatives- your estate may go to the state.

Note that any jointly held assets- such as bank accounts or houses- will go directly to the co-owner. In addition any life insurance policies or retirement accounts will go directly to the beneficiary- if any- designated on the account. And if you have a trust- remaining assets in the trust will likely go to the beneficiary designated in the trust.

One purpose of a will is to name a guardian for your young children; if you do not have a will- the court will determine who will act as guardian. The court will also appoint the person who will administer your estate.

In a nation where it is increasingly common for long term relationships- even those with children- are not formalized by marriage- your life partner – even when the parent of your child – will not inherit anything from your estate if you die without a will leaving property to the life partner.

To ensure your estate is distributed the way you want- you must coordinate leaving assets you own to persons you designate- and directing distribution of special assets (like insurance policies- tax deferred accounts- and multiple party bank and stock accounts) to persons you wish to have them.   This is will require a will and often a trust and special power of attorney to fund the trust and help with changes that may be necessary to special assets.  Contact a competent attorney to start planning.