What Happens if a Person Dies Without a Will?

If a person dies without a will, his or her assets will be distributed based on jurisdiction laws.
For a last will and testament to be considered valid, the testator must over 18, clear-headed, and not subject to coercion when writing the will.
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  • Written By: N. Madison
  • Edited By: Jenn Walker
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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When a person dies without a will, the distribution of his assets depends on the jurisdiction in which he lived. In most cases, however, a court system decides how the assets should be distributed based on the jurisdiction's laws. A court may also decide who will obtain guardianship of any children of the deceased. When a person dies intestate, which means without a will, his estate goes through probate, which is a court process for settling the deceased party’s affairs and distributing his assets. Each jurisdiction has its own laws for distributing assets in the absence of a will, but most apply set percentages to splitting the deceased’s assets between his surviving spouse and children, regardless of their ages.

In the event that a married person dies without a will, his spouse usually receives a significant percentage of the assets he left behind. In many jurisdictions, a surviving spouse receives all of the community property, which is property that is jointly owned by a married couple. The surviving spouse then receives either a third or one half of the assets the deceased owned separately. The remainder of the deceased party’s assets are usually split among his surviving children. If the deceased party did not have children, the remaining assets may be distributed among his surviving parents or his siblings if his parents are also deceased.


If a person who was unmarried dies without a will, his assets are usually handled a bit differently. If the party who died intestate had children, jurisdiction laws usually stipulate that the party’s assets are split equally among the children. For example, if a single person had two children, each child would receive 50 percent of his assets. If an unmarried individual dies without a will and did not have children, his parents normally receive all of his assets. In the event that his parents are no longer living, his siblings, including any half siblings, usually receive his assets.

Dying without a will means the deceased party’s wishes concerning the distribution of his assets are not considered. If he wanted to leave his vacation home to his brother rather than one of his children, the court has no way of knowing that and must follow the applicable laws of the jurisdiction. Additionally, the costs of completing probate are usually higher in the absence of the will. The costs are usually taken from the assets the deceased party left behind.


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