What Does Dying Intestate Mean?

Not having a will leaves loved ones with very little options.
Jessica Braxton

Jessica Braxton

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We’ve all been told we need to plan for the future. Planning for the future means preparing for what happens to our things when we die. How will our descendants fare when we are no longer here to care for them?

Many of us know we should complete our estate planning. However, most of us think we have plenty of time to get the planning accomplished. That is a risky thought process.

Dying Intestate

When you die without a will, it’s called dying intestate. Every state has its own laws regarding what happens if you die intestate. Typically, if someone dies intestate, assets will be frozen until the courts can determine exactly what assets there are as well as the values of those assets.

The estate will go into probate if you die intestate. The process of going through probate does have one benefit, which is that creditor claims begin to be cut off. A personal representative or executor will be appointed to pay your bills and distribute your belongings. After debts are paid, the remainder of your assets will be distributed among those who should inherit from your estate.

Typically, the spouse gets priority in inheritance and who makes decisions affecting the estate. Married people stand to inherit one-third to one-half of their spouse’s estate in most states. The rest of the assets are divided between children or other relatives.

If you are single, most states divide your assets among your children. If you had no children, other living relatives like siblings or parents would inherit. However, if you have no living relatives at all, your entire estate will be turned over to the state.

Jointly Held Assets

If you die intestate, any assets that are held jointly are allocated directly to the co-owner. Think bank accounts or property in this case. Life insurance policies or retirement accounts will be distributed directly to beneficiaries designated on the account. Any assets you have set aside in a trust will go to the person (or people) named as the beneficiary in that trust.

What About the Children?

As a parent, you want your children to be well cared for at all times. What happens to them in the unfortunate event of your untimely death? Do you have a plan in place? If you have a will, you have likely named the person you want to act as guardian to your children should you die prematurely.

However, if you die intestate, your wishes may or may not be followed. The court will determine who will become the caretaker for your children. Even if you’ve said verbally that you want them to live with Aunt Sally, that may not happen if you die without first creating a will.

Unmarried Partners

While you may consider your partner the love of your life, the courts won’t look at it that way. If you and your partner are not married, dying intestate will leave them with nothing. However, if you create a will or trust, you can name your partner as a beneficiary, and they would inherit what you wanted them to inherit.

Courts Make Decisions

When you create a will, you can appoint someone of your choice to be the executor of your estate. That person is responsible for dividing your assets among your heirs. They also oversee the other matters you have outlined in your will to ensure they are done the way you want.

If you die intestate, the court will appoint an executor of your estate. The court will also determine how your assets are divided based on state law. Your wishes may or may not be followed.


How your estate is taxed after you die varies between states. Some states assess an estate tax of up to 16 percent if the estate is worth more than $1.6 million. Other states use their own proprietary formula to determine estate taxes.

Federal taxes are assessed at 40 percent for estates worth more than $11.58 million. If your estate isn’t worth that much, it is likely to be exempt from federal estate taxes. Dying intestate may cause your spouse’s marital deduction to be forfeited.

Wrapping Up

Dying intestate means that your wishes may or may not be heard when it comes to dividing your estate and determining guardianship of your children. The courts will decide how assets are divided and who takes care of your children. If you want any say in future planning, you should create a will as soon as possible.


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