What Happens If You Don't Have A Will When You Die

Dying is a tricky business. In addition to leaving grieving family members behind, dying, at least in the United States, costs a fortune, and that's to say nothing of any medical costs that the deceased's estate will be on the hook for. And then there's the sorting out of the estate, the dividing up of the real estate, money, investment accounts, personal possessions, and other things that belonged to the deceased and/or their family.

Of course, the distribution of an estate can be contentious and can even drive apart families and lead to lawsuits — and that's if the deceased left a will. Far too often, people die without leaving a will, a situation that complicates their deaths even further, puts more burden on the family to sort things out, and will, by necessity, involve the government. And, note that we're limiting this discussion to what happens in the United States. Further still, according to FindLaw, the process is not uniform across the 50 states, and if the deceased had assets in more than one state, it will take officials from multiple states to sort things out. For these reasons and others, it's imperative that you have a will if you own assets that need to be distributed after your death.

The Dreaded Intestate

If you die without a will, according to FindLaw, you're deemed to be "intestate," a legal term that means "not having a will" (law can be simple and straightforward on rare occasions). From there, the intestacy laws of your state (or territory, if you're in Puerto Rico or another U.S. territory/possession) come into play. As mentioned above, these laws vary by state, and in the case of property in one or more states/territories, it will take courts in multiple jurisdictions to sort things out.

The principal problem with this, according to the E.A. Goodman Law Firm, is that the deceased's assets are going to be distributed not according to his or her wishes, which would/should have been written down in a will, but according to state intestacy laws. That means, for example, that someone who wanted to leave all of their money to one person or another will instead have it distributed according to a formula. Further still, that job will fall to a person — usually a relative — assigned by a court; that person may or may not be the person the deceased wanted to distribute their estate.

It Gets Even More Complicated

Once a person has been declared intestate and a court has appointed someone to manage the estate's distribution, it's time to get down to the nitty gritty of distributing the estate. It's going to be far from straightforward or simple, and the process will vary in each state, according to FindLaw. However, in a general sense, the process looks like this:

In essence, the intestacy laws of the state, and the court supervising its distribution, are going to see to it that portions of the estate are distributed fairly (as fairly as possible, anyway), and with certain individuals receiving priority attention. For example, oftentimes if the deceased was married, the entire estate will go to the legal partner. In some states, and in some situations, matters of community property laws and how the property was titled (among other factors) come into play.

Strictly by way of example, in Pennsylvania, according to Wolf Baldwin & Associates, the law takes into consideration whether or not the deceased is survived by a spouse, how many children they had, and so on. The surviving spouse will get a percentage, the children another percentage, and so on. Siblings of the deceased, nephews and nieces, and other people enter the picture if there were no surviving spouses, parents, or children of the deceased.

Writing A Will Isn't All That Complicated

Writing and filing a will is by no means a quick and easy job, but it's not the time-consuming, unmitigated horror you think it's going to be, either. What's more, it doesn't have to be particularly expensive. Think of it as a homework assignment for an adult, albeit one that you'll have to pay to turn in.

As Forbes reports, there are several ways to go about writing a will, the simplest of which is to do it yourself. However, the more complicated your estate is, the more likely you are to need more professional help. Thanks to the internet, you can purchase a pre-written will template, or you can use a program that guides you through the process yourself. The prices of these things range from about $20 to over $100, according to the AARP. Of course, if your estate is particularly large and/or complicated, it's probably best that you bite the bullet and schedule some time at an attorney's office.