When a person dies without a will in the United States, they've died "intestate", and each state's laws of intestacy allocate what happens to the person’s probate assets. These laws differ from state to state, and it is crucial to become familiar with your own state's rules if you are considering your estate distribution in the event you die without a will.
Generally, intestacy laws promise property to the deceased's closest family members if they die without a will. The order usually includes the surviving spouse first, then children, parents, and then further extended family members like siblings, nieces, and nephews.
However, this can vary significantly based on specific state laws. For instance, in some states, if you die without a will and have children but no spouse, the children will inherit everything. Conversely, if you have a spouse but no children, the spouse typically inherits everything. In situations where you die without a will and have both a spouse and children, most states' rules dictate that both the spouse and children share the estate, though the percentage division may differ. If you die without a will and have no immediate family, the state may look further to grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, or even your local county's schools or municipalities.
Apart from these probate assets, certain types of properties known as non-probate assets aren't governed by intestacy laws. They pass directly to the designated beneficiaries. Examples of non-probate assets include jointly held property, payable-on-death bank accounts, retirement accounts like 401(k) and IRAs, life insurance policies, and property held in a living trust. The recipient of these assets, such as the surviving co-owner or the named beneficiary, receives these properties directly when you die without a will.
Understanding one's estate planning and how your state's specific intestacy laws operate could affect you if you die without a will is critical. Although the legal system attempts to ensure a just distribution of someone's assets who died without a will, a consultation with an experienced attorney can provide a more personalized approach to estate planning that better aligns with your specific wishes and the needs of your loved ones.