The intestate succession process
Although intestate succession laws vary from state to state, the principles and processes behind them are similar. (An estate planning attorney can help you learn more about the process and your state’s specific laws).
Here’s a breakdown of the intestate process:
Role of the probate court
The probate court will appoint an administrator — often a close relative, like a spouse or child — to manage the deceased’s estate. The administrator's responsibilities may include creating an inventory of the deceased's person's assets, settling outstanding debts and allocating the remaining assets to beneficiaries.
The probate court will also resolve any disputes that may arise during asset distribution.
How assets are distributed
Assets are distributed following a predetermined hierarchy that prioritizes the deceased’s next of kin. Typically, the surviving spouse is the first in line to inherit assets — followed by children, parents, siblings and extended family. If no immediate family can be identified, the assets become property of the state.
Intestate succession typically only applies to individuals linked to you through familial ties or marriage. This means friends, unmarried partners, business associates and charities aren’t part of the list of eligible beneficiaries under intestate succession laws and are unlikely to be included in the distribution of assets through probate.
Non-probate vs. probate assets
Not all personal assets must go through probate court when a person dies intestate. Factors such as property type, beneficiary designations and ownership can all influence whether an asset bypasses probate. For example, assets in a living trust typically avoid probate because they are managed and distributed according to the trust’s instructions.
Other examples of non-probate assets include:
- Life insurance policies
- Retirement accounts
- Joint bank accounts
Challenges of dying without a will
Having a will ensures that your assets are handled according to your wishes upon your death. Without a will, your loved ones may face uncertainty and potential disputes over how your estate should be distributed. The probate process may also take longer without a will, which could delay asset distribution. In some cases, this could create financial hardships for beneficiaries.
Furthermore, a will allows you to designate trusted legal guardians to care for your children. Without a will, the court may decide guardianship of your minor children – a decision that could be contrary to your preferences.
How legal insurance can help
You can help avoid intestacy by making a will. Legal insurance can assist you in the process by connecting you with experienced attorneys who specialize in estate planning or by even enabling you to make a will digitally. Estate planning attorneys can help you draft and review your will, as well as update it. They can also address any questions or concerns you may have during the process and make sure your will complies with state laws.
You can enroll in legal insurance during your employer’s open enrollment period — typically in October and November. For more information, consult with your company’s human resources (HR) department.