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Wills and Estate Planning

Legal Planning


What happens when a person dies without a will?

Property that does not need a will and a probate court’s involvement to transfer title or ownership, such as property held in joint tenancy or property with a beneficiary designated, simply passes to the remaining joint tenants or designated beneficiary(ies). Examples of joint tenancy, would be bank accounts or real property held jointly between 2 or more people. When one of the joint tenants dies, ownership automatically passes to the remaining joint tenant(s). An example of a beneficiary designation that does not require a will, would be a life insurance policy. When the named insured dies, the life insurance benefit would then pass to whoever was named as a beneficiary on the policy.

The story is much different however for property that is owned in such a way that there is no “automatic” transfer upon the owner’s death, such a property that is held only in the owner’s name. In this case, if the owner dies without a will, then the property would pass to the owner’s surviving family members via a distribution pattern set out by law called “intestate succession”. Just one example of a situation in which this might present some problems is when a person remarries and dies leaving children from a prior marriage. Having a will or trust in place in this situation is especially important.

Many times this may mirror what the owner would have intended, but if the owner had wanted to include non-family members or organizations as beneficiaries (or alternatively “disinherit” a family member) this would not happen via intestate succession.