What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

Dave Ramsey

You know you should get a will, but it seems like life never slows down enough to think about it. With oil changes and grocery store runs and everything in between, creating a will gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list.

If that sounds like you, you’re not alone. A majority of Americans know a will is important, but only 40% have actually created one.1

Here’s the bad news: dying without a will can cause big problems for your loved ones. But here’s good news: creating a will doesn’t have to be complicated. And when you do have a will, you control what happens to your estate, kids and pets—not the courts.

What You Need to Know About Intestacy

Intestate isn’t a road between two states. It means dying without leaving a legal will in place. And the process your estate would go through is called intestacy. If this happens to you, the laws in the state where you live decide how your assets are given away—and who gives them away. That includes your money, real estate (unless it’s co-owned), pets, family heirlooms, and your prized butterfly collection.

What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

If you die without a will, the probate process kicks in and the state will name a personal representative (the person who will distribute your assets). In most cases, the surviving spouse gets that difficult job. But naming a representative can get complicated when you add in ex-spouses, kids, parents and even that oddball uncle who thinks you were best buds.shield character

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Until the courts decide who will distribute your assets, they will be frozen. That means no one can touch your stuff, even if you said they could have it. And even after the court names a representative, family and friends might resent the person who was chosen.

If nobody is willing to handle your estate, the courts will name a public trustee. This total stranger will distribute your assets according to the laws in your state. And that usually leaves everybody unhappy.

If You’re Single

If you’re single without kids and you die without a will, your parents will likely inherit your entire estate. If you have any assets (car, condo, etc.), those items will be used to pay off any debt you have, like student loans.

If one of your parents has already passed away, your assets will be divided among the surviving parent and any siblings—even if you don’t have a great relationship with any of them. And if you have a pet, your immediate family will decide what happens to it.

Meet Jamie, a 36-year-old single woman with no children and one cat. She doesn’t get along with her sister Jill but has developed a great relationship with Jill’s teenage daughter, Amy. Jamie has promised to help Amy pay for her college degree.

If Jamie draws up a will, she can designate exactly where she wants her money to go. She can give Amy her entire estate, or she can give Amy a percentage of her assets and have the rest go to other people or charities she chooses. Jamie can even leave her cat to a friend. That’s the power of a will.

But if Jamie passes away without a will in place, her estate would be divided between her parents and her sister. There’s no guarantee Amy would get a penny. And the pet? Hopefully, one of her family members likes cats.

If You Have Children

If you have children but pass away without a will in place, the courts decide on a guardian for them. In most cases, a family member will step in to take care of your kids. The problem is, that person may be the last one you’d choose! This situation can be avoided by creating a will.

Nan is a widow with three kids under the age of 18. She knows that if she passes away, her sister will take care of the children because Nan drew up a will and named her sister as guardian. She is leaving part of her estate to her sister to care for the children and created a trust fund for the children to use for college expenses.

If You’re Married

The laws are different in every state, but if you’re married and die without a will, your estate will probably go to your spouse if you both own it. Legally, it’s called community property. If you have separate property, it would likely be split among your surviving spouse, children, siblings and parents. Things get more confusing if you’re divorced and remarried but have children from both marriages.

Frank is married with three children and lives in New York. If he passes away without a will, the law says his surviving spouse will inherit the first $50,000 of his personal assets (not any shared assets) plus half the balance. The rest would be divided equally among Frank’s children.

If Frank lived in Tennessee, his wife would receive one-third of the estate and the rest would be given to the children in equal amounts. If Frank had stepchildren, neither New York nor Tennessee would recognize them as valid heirs, even if he has raised them as his own.

This just goes to show how complicated things can get for your loved ones if you pass away without a will in place. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

How Dying Without a Will Affects Your Family

Dying without a will in place can create a literal family feud that would rival anything on Jerry Springer. Unfortunately, people in grief can let their emotions get the best of them, causing hard feelings all around.

By creating a will, you get to choose how your estate will be distributed and who will take care of your children. Your wishes will be respected, and your children will have the guardian you trust.

And since creating a will doesn’t take a lot of time, you can put it at the top of your to-do list—not at the bottom.

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