What Happens If You Die Without a Last Will and Testament?


When someone dies without setting up a last will and testament, it is considered an “intestate” death. Each state has slightly different intestacy laws that determine how the deceased’s property is distributed. This includes assets such as bank accounts, securities, and real estate.

In general, if you die intestate your belongings will go to family members. The results can vary greatly depending on your marital status and whether or not you have kids. Often the assets will be split among heirs, which can include a spouse, children, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, and more distant relatives. If no relatives can be found, the entire estate will go to the state.

How the assets are split depends on what kinds of heirs remain:

  • Single with no children. In this situation, if both of your parents are alive, they will receive the entire estate. If not, it will be split among the surviving parent (if applicable) and your siblings. Next in line would be nieces and nephews if no parents or siblings remain. If none of the previously mentioned family members remain, the estate can be divided equally between your parents’ relatives.

  • Single with children. In this circumstance, generally the entire estate will go to your children. It can also be given to grandchildren if your children had kids but are no longer living.

  • Married with no children. This situation depends on how your assets are owned. Communal property will go entirely to the surviving spouse. Separate property will be split among your spouse, siblings, and parents.

  • Married with children. If you only have children with your current spouse, that spouse will receive the entire estate. If you have a spouse and children from another partner, up to half of the estate will go to the spouse, and the remaining assets will be divided among the children from the other person.

  • Unmarried couples. Without a will, the property cannot go to the unmarried partner. The estate will go to your family as explained above. It is particularly important to keep an up-to-date will in this situation if you don’t want that to happen.

  • Domestic partnerships. Not every state recognizes domestic partnerships, so it is important to check and understand the laws that govern in your state in this situation. If the state does recognize such partnerships, the partner generally inherits the estate as a spouse would.

When planning your estate, it’s very important to know the estate planning laws that exist in your area. If you have any further questions concerning California estate planning laws, or would like to set up a last will and testament, contact us at Hathaway Law.

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