What Happens if You Die Without a Will? Understanding Intestacy

by LegalFix
Posted: April 5, 2024
Wills, trusts, and estates

What happens if you die without a will? Known legally as "dying intestate," this situation can create a myriad of complications for your loved ones. While pondering one's demise is never pleasant, understanding the importance of having a will and the consequences of not having one is essential for responsible life planning.

Consequences of Dying Without a Will

  • Lack of Control: Without a will, the state effectively decides who gets what. This might mean that your assets don't get distributed as you would have wished.

  • Extended Probate Process: Without clear directions from a will, the probate process—where assets are identified, debts paid off, and remaining assets distributed—can be more time-consuming and costly.

  • Potential Family Conflicts: Ambiguities around the distribution of assets can lead to disputes among family members, causing unnecessary strain during an already emotionally challenging time.

The Basics of Intestate Succession

Intestate succession laws determine how your assets are divided if you die without a will. Though they vary by state, some general principles usually apply:

  • Spouses and Children: Typically, a surviving spouse and children are first in line. If you leave behind a spouse but no children, your spouse might inherit everything, and vice versa.

  • Parents, Siblings, and Extended Family: If you're unmarried and childless, your parents, siblings, or more distant relatives may be the next in line.

  • State Takes All: In the rare instance that no close relatives can be found, your assets may escheat or revert to the state.

Benefits of Having a Will

  • Control Over Asset Distribution: You determine precisely who gets what, ensuring your wishes are respected.

  • Protection for Minor Children: A will allows you to appoint a guardian for minor children, ensuring they are cared for by someone you trust.

  • Reduce Family Strain: By providing clear instructions, you can reduce the potential for family disputes and ensure a smoother distribution of assets.

  • Tax Benefits: A well-written will can help minimize estate taxes, ensuring your beneficiaries receive the maximum benefit.

Creating a Will

Despite the importance of responsible estate planning, nearly two-thirds of Americans do not have valid estate planning documents in place. Because of this longstanding reality, state legislatures have passed intestate succession laws that determine how a person's (their estate's) assets will be divided and their debts or liabilities will be paid if they die without a will (or a trust). 

Although it is significant legal document, creating a will does not have to be daunting. For example, digital wills have emerged as a modern alternative to traditional wills, making it easier to create one than ever before. As of this writing, several jurisdictions in the United States have already enacted laws that recognize the validity of electronic wills.

Having affordable access to a qualified attorney in your state is invaluable in this process. An estate planning attorney can craft a will tailored to your specific needs, circumstances, and priorities. Additionally, as life evolves—children are born, marriages dissolve, assets are acquired, health and financial needs change—you'll need someone to update your will and other estate planning documents accordingly—to create a trust, for example. The peace of mind that comes with knowing your wishes will be honored and your loved ones will be taken care of is priceless.

Know the Laws with LegalFix

While discussing death and the subsequent distribution of assets can be uncomfortable, ensuring you have a will in place is a genuine act of love and care towards your family and loved ones. The fallout from dying intestate can be both emotionally and financially draining for those left behind.

Whether you’re trying to understand what happens if you die without a will or just want a better understanding of how our legal system works, LegalFix is your go-to source for free legal information. You can find helpful articles and state-specific explanations of nearly 1,600 legal topics—and browse the state and federal statutes to better understand the laws that affect you. Just visit to find all this content—and check back often for more valuable legal products and services coming soon.