Intestate Succession: What Happens Without A Will

Imagine a scenario where life takes an unexpected turn, leaving you without a will to determine the fate of your assets and loved ones. It may seem like a distant possibility, but the reality is that it can happen to anyone. This is where the concept of intestate succession comes into play. In this insightful article, we will explore what happens when someone passes away without a will, and how the legal system distributes their estate. Whether you find yourself facing this situation or simply wanting to be prepared for the future, understanding intestate succession is crucial. So, let’s explore the world of estate planning and discover why consulting with a knowledgeable attorney like Jeremy Eveland is essential when it comes to protecting your loved ones and ensuring your wishes are honored.

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Intestate Succession

Definition and Overview

Intestate succession refers to the process by which a person’s estate is distributed after their death when they have not left behind a valid will. In these cases, the estate is distributed according to the laws of the state where the deceased person resided. Intestate succession can be a complex and lengthy process, often involving court proceedings and various legal formalities. Understanding the basics of intestate succession is important, as it can have significant implications for the distribution of one’s assets and the well-being of their loved ones.

Laws Governing Intestate Succession

Each state has specific laws that govern intestate succession. These laws outline the order of priority for distributing the deceased person’s assets among their surviving relatives. The laws may vary from state to state, so it is crucial to consult the laws of the specific jurisdiction in which the deceased person resided. These laws typically determine who the heirs are, the percentage of the estate they are entitled to, and other important factors. It is advisable to consult an estate planning attorney to ensure compliance with the applicable laws and avoid potential pitfalls.

The Importance of Having a Will

Avoiding Intestate Succession

Having a valid will is crucial to avoid intestate succession. By clearly stating your wishes in a will, you can ensure that your assets are distributed according to your preferences rather than being subject to the default laws of intestate succession. By taking the time to draft a will, you can provide peace of mind for yourself and your loved ones, knowing that your assets will be distributed as you intended.

Control Over Distribution of Assets

One of the major advantages of having a will is the ability to have control over the distribution of your assets. With a will, you can specify which individuals or organizations should receive your property, ensuring that your loved ones are taken care of and that any charitable causes you support are included in your estate distribution. By having this control, you can minimize the potential for disputes among family members and ensure your assets go where you desire.

Appointment of Executors

When you have a will, you have the opportunity to appoint an executor, or personal representative, who will be responsible for managing your estate and ensuring that your wishes are carried out. The executor plays a vital role in administering your estate, including gathering and distributing assets, paying debts, and handling other administrative tasks. By appointing a trustworthy individual as your executor, you can have peace of mind knowing that your estate will be handled in accordance with your instructions.

Choosing Guardians for Minor Children

For parents with minor children, a will offers an opportunity to appoint a guardian to care for and raise their children in the event of their untimely passing. This provision can provide reassurance and stability for the children during a difficult time, as well as ensuring that their best interests are protected. By not leaving a will, the decision of who will care for your children may be left to the court, which may not align with your wishes.

Intestate Succession Process

Determining Heirs

In the absence of a will, the first step in the intestate succession process is determining who will inherit the deceased person’s assets. The laws of the state will typically establish an order of priority for potential heirs. For example, the surviving spouse usually has the first right to inherit, followed by children or other descendants, parents, siblings, and more distant relatives. If no relatives can be found, the estate may escheat to the state. It is important to consult the specific laws of your state to understand who would be considered an heir in your situation.

Appointing an Administrator

In intestate succession, the court will appoint an administrator to oversee the administration of the estate. The administrator is typically a close relative or another individual with a vested interest in the estate. Their responsibilities include gathering the deceased person’s assets, paying outstanding debts and taxes, and ultimately distributing the remaining assets to the rightful heirs as determined by the laws of intestate succession.

Inventory of Assets

The administrator is responsible for conducting a thorough inventory of the deceased person’s assets. This includes identifying all bank accounts, real estate properties, investments, personal belongings, and any other assets of value. An accurate inventory is crucial to ensure that all assets are properly distributed and accounted for during the intestate succession process.

Settlement of Debts and Taxes

Before the estate can be distributed to the heirs, the administrator must settle any outstanding debts and taxes. This may involve selling assets or using funds from the estate to cover these obligations. It is important that the administrator diligently investigates and settles all debts and taxes to ensure a lawful distribution of the estate.

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Hierarchy of Heirs

Surviving Spouse

In most states, the surviving spouse is entitled to a significant portion of the estate in cases of intestate succession. The exact percentage may vary depending on the state’s laws and whether the deceased person had children or other living relatives. Typically, the surviving spouse is entitled to at least half of the estate, while the remaining portion is distributed among other heirs according to the state’s laws.

Children and Descendants

If there is no surviving spouse, or if the estate exceeds the spouse’s share, the assets are typically distributed among the deceased person’s children or their descendants. The distribution is usually done equally among all children, regardless of their age or financial situation. If any of the children have predeceased the individual and have their own children (the deceased person’s grandchildren), those grandchildren may inherit their parent’s share.


If the deceased person has no surviving spouse or children, the next in line to inherit are the deceased person’s parents. In the absence of living parents, the estate may pass to the siblings or other relatives according to the state’s laws.


When there are no surviving parents, spouse, or children, the estate may be distributed among the deceased person’s siblings. If any of the siblings have predeceased the individual, their share may pass to their children (nieces and nephews of the deceased person).


In some cases, if there are no surviving siblings, nieces, or nephews, the estate may pass to the deceased person’s grandparents. It is important to note that not all states include grandparents as eligible heirs in cases of intestate succession.

Aunts, Uncles, and Cousins

If there are no surviving grandparents or closer relatives, the estate may go to more distant relatives such as aunts, uncles, or cousins. The specific laws of the state will determine the order of priority among these relatives.

Spouse’s Share in Intestate Succession

Community Property vs. Separate Property States

The percentage a surviving spouse is entitled to receive in intestate succession depends on whether the state follows community property or separate property laws. Community property states recognize that assets acquired during a marriage belong equally to both spouses. Separate property states, on the other hand, consider assets acquired individually by each spouse as separate property.

Spouse’s Share in Community Property States

In community property states, the surviving spouse is typically entitled to receive a significant share of the estate. Usually, the surviving spouse inherits the deceased person’s half of the community property, while retaining their own half. The shares of any separate property owned by the deceased person will depend on the applicable state laws and the existence of other heirs.

Spouse’s Share in Separate Property States

In separate property states, the surviving spouse’s share in intestate succession may vary. The exact percentage depends on the state’s laws and whether the deceased person left behind any children or other living relatives. In some cases, if there are no living children, the surviving spouse may inherit the entire estate. However, if there are children or other eligible heirs, the surviving spouse’s share may be less.

Children’s Share in Intestate Succession

Equal Distribution Among Children

In cases where there is no surviving spouse or the spouse’s share does not encompass the entire estate, the deceased person’s children are typically the next in line to inherit. The laws of intestate succession usually mandate an equal distribution among all children, regardless of their age or financial situation. This equal distribution ensures fairness and avoids potential conflicts among the children.

Share of Adopted and Illegitimate Children

Adopted children are generally treated the same as biological children in intestate succession. They have the same rights to inherit from their adoptive parents as biological children have. Similarly, illegitimate children may also have inheritance rights in intestate succession, depending on the state’s laws and the circumstances surrounding their birth.

Pretermitted Children

A pretermitted child is a child born after the deceased person’s will was created and inadvertently omitted from the will. In many jurisdictions, pretermitted children are entitled to a share of the estate in intestate succession. This protection ensures that children who were not included in the deceased person’s will are not completely disinherited.

The Role of the Administrator

Appointment by the Court

In intestate succession, the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate and carry out the distribution of assets according to the laws. The court’s appointment process ensures that a responsible and qualified individual is chosen to handle the estate administration.

Responsibilities and Duties

The administrator has several key responsibilities and duties throughout the intestate succession process. These include gathering and safeguarding the deceased person’s assets, paying off debts and taxes, notifying potential heirs, distributing assets according to the laws, and submitting required reports to the court. The administrator must fulfill these duties with care and in compliance with the applicable laws and court instructions.

Paying Claims and Distributing Assets

One of the primary duties of the administrator is to settle any outstanding claims against the estate, including debts, taxes, and expenses. After all debts and taxes are paid, the administrator distributes the remaining assets to the rightful heirs as determined by the laws of intestate succession. This distribution must be done fairly and in accordance with the court’s orders to avoid disputes and challenges.

Disputes and Challenges

Contesting the Intestate Succession

In some cases, potential heirs or other interested parties may contest the intestate succession. Disputes may arise if someone believes they have been wrongfully excluded from the distribution or if there are concerns about the validity of the estate administration. Contesting the intestate succession can be a complex and lengthy process, requiring a thorough examination of the facts and legal arguments. It is advisable to seek the guidance of an estate planning attorney if you wish to contest an intestate succession.

Proving Invalidity of the Intestate Succession

In certain situations, it may be necessary to prove the invalidity of the intestate succession. This can happen if there are doubts about the authenticity of the deceased person’s signature on a will or if there are suspicions of undue influence or coercion. Proving the invalidity of the intestate succession requires substantial evidence and legal expertise. An experienced estate planning attorney can guide you through the process and help protect your rights.

Family Disputes and Resolving Conflicts

Intestate succession can sometimes lead to family disputes and conflicts among potential heirs. The distribution of assets according to the laws of intestate succession may not align with the deceased person’s or their family’s expectations. In such cases, it is crucial to handle the conflicts with sensitivity and open communication. Engaging a mediator or seeking legal counsel can help to resolve the disputes and find mutually agreeable solutions.

Limitations and Exceptions

Rights of Surviving Spouse

While surviving spouses generally have significant rights in intestate succession, there may be limitations or exceptions depending on the state’s laws and the specific circumstances. For example, if the surviving spouse abandoned the deceased person or was divorced at the time of death, their share in the estate may be reduced or even eliminated. It is important to consult the laws of your jurisdiction to understand the rights and limitations applicable to surviving spouses in intestate succession.

Homestead Allowance and Exempt Property

In many states, there are provisions that protect certain assets from being included in the estate for distribution purposes. These provisions often include a homestead allowance, which permits the surviving spouse or children to retain a portion of the family home, and an exempt property allowance, which allows the surviving spouse to keep certain personal property, such as furniture or automobiles. These allowances provide some measure of financial security to the surviving family members.


In limited circumstances, a deceased person may have intentionally disinherited a potential heir, and their wishes are enforceable even in cases of intestate succession. However, it is important to note that disinheriting a close family member may give rise to legal challenges and disputes. If you wish to disinherit a potential heir, it is advisable to consult an estate planning attorney to ensure your intentions are clearly expressed and legally enforceable.

Consulting an Estate Planning Attorney

Understanding Your State’s Laws

Given the complexities involved in intestate succession, it is essential to consult an experienced estate planning attorney to understand the laws of your specific state. Each state has its own set of rules and regulations governing intestate succession, and an attorney can provide guidance tailored to your circumstances.

Drafting a Comprehensive Estate Plan

To avoid the uncertainties and potential complications of intestate succession, it is advisable to have a comprehensive estate plan in place. An estate planning attorney can assist you in drafting a will that clearly expresses your wishes, designating beneficiaries, appointing executors and guardians, and addressing any specific concerns or considerations unique to your situation.

Avoiding Potential Pitfalls

Working with an estate planning attorney can help you avoid potential pitfalls associated with intestate succession. By understanding the laws, properly drafting legal documents, and seeking professional advice, you can ensure that your assets are distributed according to your wishes and minimize the risk of disputes or challenges in the future.

In conclusion, intestate succession is a legal process that determines the distribution of a deceased person’s assets when there is no valid will in place. Understanding the laws governing intestate succession, the rights of surviving family members, and the responsibilities of an administrator is crucial to ensure a fair and lawful distribution of assets. However, the best way to avoid the complexities and uncertainties of intestate succession is to consult with an estate planning attorney and create a comprehensive estate plan that reflects your wishes and protects the interests of your loved ones.

See the Intestate Succession: What Happens Without A Will in detail.