If you own property at the time of your death, your will provides instructions on how it should be distributed. If you don't have a will, the state distributes your property according to its laws of intestate succession.
You Can Create a Trust Instead
It's common these days for people to use a trust instead of a will to transfer some of their high-value assets at death. If you place your home in a trust and name your children as beneficiaries, for example, it isn't necessary to include the home in a will. And if you don't have a will at all, only your assets that aren't in a trust will be distributed pursuant to your state's intestate succession laws.
State Law May Dictae
In the event you don't have a will, your state will use its "intestate succession" laws to determine who gets what. These laws apply different distribution formulas depending on whether you're married and have children. In some states, your spouse may receive a minimum amount of your property off the top, with half of the remaining property going to your spouse and the other half divided equally among your children. Rules vary among states, however, so it's a good idea to investigate the law before putting together your estate plan.
If you die without a will and live in a community property state, like California, your state's intestate succession rules may be significantly different than those in most other states. In a community property state, you and your spouse are each considered to own half of all property acquired during marriage. Your surviving spouse usually inherits your half of the community property.
The State Will Get Your Property
When you have no heirs eligible to receive your property through intestate succession, or existing heirs cannot be located, the state inherits everything you own at death. In some jurisdictions, a second cousin may be the most distant relative who is eligible to be an heir. Other states allow more distant relatives to inherit your property before the state is eligible to take it.
A Trusts and Estates Lawyer Can Help
The law surrounding the property of those who die intestate is complicated. Plus, the facts of each case are unique. This article provides a brief, general introduction to the topic. For more detailed, specific information, please contact a trusts and estates lawyer.