When somebody you know has died without a last will (known as dying in ‘intestate’), it can make distributing the property and money (otherwise known as the ‘estate’), a lot more complicated. It can also sometimes make the process unfair, as generally only one or two people will inherit the whole property.
Keep in mind that just because they died, they still have to pay off any debts they have with the assets from their estate. In fact, even if there was a last will in place, nobody listed as a beneficiary on the last will can receive anything until all debts of the estate have been paid off.
The intestacy laws of the state where the person has died in will determine who receives the assets of the estate, which includes any bank accounts, securities, real estate, and other assets they owned at the time of death. Real estate owned in a different state than where they resided will be handled under the intestacy laws of the state where the property is located.
The laws of intestate succession also vary greatly depending on whether the person was single or married, or had children. In most cases, the property is distributed in split shares to the heirs, which can include a surviving spouse, siblings, aunts and uncles, nieces, nephews, and distant relatives.
If no relatives can be found, the entire estate will go to the state.
Here Is How Succession Goes In Most States - (some states will differ in intestate laws)
Single With No Children
If they are single and childless, the parents will receive the entire estate if they are both living. If they have no surviving parents at the time of death, then the entire estate will be divided among siblings, in equal parts.
If there are no surviving parents, siblings, or descendants of siblings (nieces and nephews), then relatives on the mother’s side will inherit one-half of the estate, with the other half passing to relatives on the father’s side.
It is important to realize that the government will not go on a man hunt to track down these distant family members, the government is more keen on seizing the unclaimed assets of the estate. This is all the more reason to try and find the will. How to See the Last Will of a Family Member or Friend covers this issue extensively.
Single With Children
If they are single and have children, then the entire estate will go to the children in equal shares.
Married With No Children
If they lived in a Community Property State, then any assets they acquired while married is jointly owned and the estate normally goes entirely to the surviving spouse. Sometime it will also be split between any surviving siblings and parents.
Married With Children
If they are married with children then the entire estate will go to the surviving spouse (if all children are the children of the surviving spouse). Otherwise, your surviving spouse will receive up to one-half of the estate, with the remaining portion passing to any surviving children from another spouse or partner.
Dying without a will can be devastating to unmarried couples who are living together. Because intestacy laws only recognize relatives and spouses, unmarried partners do not inherit the property of the other partner when one partner dies without a will. Unless the last will clearly states a person's intentions when they die, the decedent's property will be divided among their own family.
How each state recognizes domestic partners is different, so it is important to check the laws for your particular state. Generally, if somebody dies without a will, and is survived by a domestic partner, the domestic partner would inherit in the same fashion as a married partner.
If you are interested, check out, Checklist of Everything You Need To Do When a Loved One Dies for helpful information on closing accounts and memberships of the decedent.