What Happens If You Die Without A Will?

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By Sheila O’ Brian

You know you should make a will, but you never seem to be able to drum up much enthusiasm for the idea.  It seems like a big, complicated pain-in-the-butt undertaking and you’re not planning on dying anytime soon anyway.  You know that lawyers cost a fortune, and who knows if you really can legally use one of those online will kits? Differing opinions abound.  So, you wonder, what happens if you don’t make a will?  Can the government really take all your possessions that the bank doesn’t already own most of? 

The short answer is probably not.  Unless you are truly completely alone in the world with no blood ties whatsoever, there is likely a relative somewhere that is eligible to inherit, if they can be found.  In fact, British television has aired a program called Heir Hunters, which is described as “a series following the work of heir hunters, probate detectives looking for distant relatives of people who have died without making a will”.  In the U.S., private investigation firms will attempt to find a potential heir, but someone presumably must hire them before they will begin to look.  Of course, if the estate is large, anyone may undertake to find lost relatives in hopes of receiving a commission for the information from a grateful heir.  In the end though, it is possible that if an heir cannot be found after a reasonable length of time has passed, then yes, eventually your estate will escheat (pass) to the appropriate governing body.

However, for an average individual with no shortage of relatives in line to legally inherit your worldly goods, the application of the relevant inheritance laws certainly doesn’t mean that your estate will be distributed in a manner that you would approve of.  Intestacy (the legal term for dying without a will) laws vary widely, depending on where you live.  Your spouse, for instance, may find that the laws of your state are not altogether favourable to him or her when you have children involved, perhaps from a previous marriage.  Common law and same-sex partners may or may not be recognized as eligible to inherit.  A close relative you cannot stand the sight of may be first in line if you have no spouse or children.  

Finally, it is important to note that in addition to the disposition of your estate, regardless of the value, your will also functions as the vehicle through which you will make your final wishes known.  You will appoint a trusted executor/executrix to a position of authority to administer your final wishes, which may include instructions for your desired funeral arrangements and interment, the distribution of personal items of great sentimental but minimal monetary value, or your choice of a guardian for your young children.

Without a doubt, dying without a will robs you of your right to have a say in the settling of your affairs and creates unnecessary hardship for those closest to you, as they are left to deal with the legal technicalities on their own.  

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