without a will: who gets what?

Dear Savvy Living,
What will happen to my property and money if I die without a will? 
— Don’t Have Much

Click here for a free guide to wills and trusts from the Valencia Foundation.

 Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of “The Savvy Senior” book accepts questions on senior issues at: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.  Below is his response to “Mr. Don’t Have Much”  

Dear Don’t Have Much,  

If you die without a will, what happens to your assets will depend on the state you live in and which of your family members are living at the time of your death. Here’s what you should know.  

No one ever really dies without a will. That’s because even if you don’t get around to creating one yourself, the state you resided in will make one for you. But that also means the state gets to determine who gets your property and money – not you.  

The state laws that determine how your estate will be distributed if you die without a will are called intestacy laws and they can vary greatly from state-to-state. The best way to find out how your state works is to go to MyStateWill.com. This is a free, user-friendly site that has an intestacy calculator for every state so you can get an exact breakdown of how your estate would be distributed.  

In the meantime, here is a general (not state-specific) breakdown of what can happen to a person’s assets – depending on who they leave behind.  

Who Gets What  

  • Married with children: When a married person with children dies without a will, all property, investments and financial accounts that are jointly held automatically go to the surviving spouse. This transfer takes place without going through probate, which is the legal process that distributes a deceased person’s assets. But for all other separately owned property or individual financial accounts, the laws of most states award one-third to one-half to the surviving spouse, while the rest goes to the children.


  • Married with no children or grandchildren: Some states award the entire estate to the surviving spouse or everything up to a certain amount (for example the first $200,000). But many other states award only one-third to one-half of the decedent’s separately owned assets to the surviving spouse with the remainder generally going to the deceased person’s parents, or if the parents are dead, to brothers and sisters. (Note: Jointly owned property, investments, financial accounts, or community property automatically go to the surviving spouse.)


  • Single with children: State laws provide that the entire estate goes to the children in equal shares. If an adult child of the decedent has died, then that child’s children (the decedent’s grandchildren) split their parent’s share.


  • Single with no children: In this situation, most state laws favor the deceased person’s parents. If both parents are deceased, many states divide the property among the brothers and sisters, or if they are not living, their children (your nieces and nephews). If there are none of them, it goes to the next of kin. If there is no living family, the state takes it.

Simple Wills  

If you don’t like the idea of your state handling your financial affairs after you’re gone, you can change that by contacting your favorite charity.  


If you would like to update your plan, please feel free to contact the Valenica Foundation at 407/582-3150 or visit online at www.valenciagiving.org or click here for a free guide to wills and trusts. 


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