What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will?

Dying without a will is referred to as dying “intestate.” As such, a state’s intestacy laws will apply in the event that a person dies without a valid will in place. Pennsylvania’s intestate succession laws come into play to direct where a deceased person’s assets should go in the event that there is no valid will to direct to whom they should be distributed. In other words, intestate succession laws, in the absence of a will, direct who gets what from a person’s probate estate.

Remember, intestate succession laws will only apply to a person’s probate estate. This means they will only impact where assets go that would need to go through probate. There are, however, many significant assets that may pass outside of probate. For instance, assets held in a living trust would pass outside of probate. Life insurance proceeds and retirement accounts with named beneficiaries would pass outside of probate as would securities, real estate, bank accounts, and vehicles that are registered as transfer on death. Property owned with another person in a joint tenancy or tenancy by the entirety would also pass outside of probate as the asset would pass automatically to the surviving co-owner regardless of whether or not the deceased co-owner had a will in place.

As you can see, a number of different assets can pass outside of probate and, thus, would not be impacted by a state’s laws of intestate succession. However, what becomes of the assets that do pass through probate and there is no valid will in place? What happens to the probate estate when a person dies without a will?

What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will?

Pursuant to Pennsylvania’s intestate succession laws, who gets what when a person dies without a will depends on what relatives survive the deceased. For instance, if a person dies with surviving children, but no surviving spouse, the children inherit everything. If a person dies with a surviving spouse, but no surviving descendants or parents, the spouse inherits everything. If a person dies with a surviving spouse and surviving dependents from themselves and the surviving spouse, the spouse will inherit the first $30,000 of the intestate property plus half of the balance and your descendants will inherit everything else.

When we mention children or descendants of the deceased, for purposes of intestate succession, we mean those children who are recognized legally as children of the deceased. Usually, this is clear enough, but it can get confusing in some cases. Adopted children, children a person has legally adopted, for instance, will receive an intestate share the same as biological children would. Foster and stepchildren that were never legally adopted, however, would not automatically receive an intestate share same as children of the deceased who were placed for adoption and legally adopted by another family.

Should a person pass away without a will and without any surviving family members, their property would pass, or “escheat,” to the state. This, however, is very rare as Pennsylvania’s intestate succession laws will go through the most remote of surviving family members before the property would escheat to the state.

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