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What Happens if You Die Without a Will?

Benoff Law Firm Dec. 11, 2023

Gavel, scales of justice and law booksYou might think that your assets will automatically pass to your family in the way you'd want, but it's not always that straightforward. There are rules in place that govern how an estate is divided in the absence of a will, and these may not align with your wishes or your family's expectations. 

At the Benoff Law Firm, our skilled estate administration and estate planning attorneys are here to guide you through some of the complexities of probate law. In particular, today we're going to discuss what happens when someone dies without a will, also known as dying intestate. It's a situation that can bring about many questions and concerns, not just for the deceased's loved ones, but also for their estate. 

The Process of Intestate Succession 

The intestate succession process is complex and is influenced by several factors. The steps involved include: 

  1. Evaluation of Estate Size and Nature of Assets: The process begins by assessing the size and nature of the deceased's estate. This includes tangible assets, such as property and personal items, as well as intangible ones, like financial investments. 

  1. Understanding the Marital Status: The deceased's marital status plays a crucial role in intestate succession. If the deceased was married, the spouse generally receives a significant portion of the assets. 

  1. Identifying Eligible Relatives: Relatives like children, parents, siblings, or grandchildren may also be entitled to a share of the estate depending on the legal hierarchy of heirs. The distribution among relatives can differ based on state laws and individual circumstances. 

  1. Distributing Only Certain Assets: Intestate succession only dictates the distribution of assets that would have passed through the deceased's will. Certain types of assets, such as life insurance proceeds or retirement accounts, typically fall outside the scope of intestate succession.  

Every state has its own laws regarding intestate succession, and thus, the process can vary considerably depending on the state and the specific circumstances of the deceased. 

In Pennsylvania, this includes that when it comes to kids, if someone dies without a will, the children get an intestate share of the property. The size of each kid's share depends on a few things, like the number of children, whether the person was married, and whether the spouse is also the parent of the children.

However, if a person dies without a will and doesn't have any family, the property might end up with the state. But don't worry, the laws in Pennsylvania are designed to make sure the property goes to anyone who's even remotely related before it goes to the state.

Potential Complications 

Without a will, it's the courts that decide how your assets are distributed, which can lead to complications and delays. It's not uncommon for disagreements to arise among family members over who should receive what, especially when there are substantial assets or complex family dynamics involved. 

Moreover, if you have minor children and both parents pass away without a will, the court will appoint a guardian. While they'll always aim to act in the child's best interests, their decision may not align with what you would have wanted. 

The Importance of Planning Ahead 

At Benoff Law Firm, we believe in empowering our clients with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions. We understand that contemplating one's mortality isn't easy. However, having a will in place is crucial for ensuring that your wishes are respected and your loved ones are taken care of after you're gone. 

Creating a will doesn't have to be a daunting task. With the right legal guidance, it can be a straightforward process that brings you peace of mind. Remember, it's not just about distributing assets — it's about making sure your family is supported and your legacy is preserved. 

The Process of Creating and Making a Will Official 

Creating a will is a systematic process that requires careful consideration and planning. Here are the steps you'll need to follow: 

  1. Identify your assets: Start by creating a comprehensive list of all your assets. This should include all your financial accounts, real estate properties, vehicles, jewelry, and other personal belongings that have value.  

  1. Choose your beneficiaries: Decide who you want to inherit your assets. This could be your spouse, children, extended family members, friends, or even a charity that you support. 

  1. Appoint an executor: Choose a trustworthy person to handle the distribution of your assets and fulfill your wishes as stated in your will. This is often a spouse, adult child, or close friend. 

  1. Designate a guardian: If you have minor children, assign someone you trust to take care of them in the event of your passing. 

  1. Draft your will: With the help of an attorney, outline your wishes clearly on paper. Be specific about who gets what and include all the necessary details. 

  1. Sign the document: Once you're satisfied with the content of your will, sign it in the presence of two witnesses who are not beneficiaries in the will.  

  1. Store it safely: Keep your will in a safe place and inform your executor where it's located.  

Remember, it's essential to review and update your will periodically, especially after major life events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, or the death of a beneficiary. Proper planning and regular updates can help ensure your final wishes are respected and your loved ones are protected. 

Prepare for Anything 

Dying intestate can lead to outcomes you might not anticipate, leaving your family with potential legal complications and emotional stress. At Benoff Law Firm, we're committed to providing skillful legal guidance and tailored strategies to help you navigate these challenges. 

If you're in Trevose, Pennsylvania, or the surrounding areas including Northeast Philadelphia, Southhampton, Philadelphia, Bucks County, and Montgomery County, we're here to assist with all your legal needs. Reach out to us. Whether you need help drafting a will, navigating intestate succession, or any other aspect of probate law, you can count on us to provide a client-centered approach aimed at achieving positive outcomes.