Create free obituary

Blog Categories

September 9, 2020 Beyond The Dash

What Happens to Your Estate, Dependants, and Belongings if You Die Without a Will?

Dying intestate, and the implications for your survivors

What Happens to Your Estate, Dependants, and Belongings if You Die Without a Will?
Everyone knows it's important to have a will, yet most Americans leave no final instructions when they die. Learn the risks of dying intestate. (Getty)


Research has shown that most Americans are woefully unprepared for the financial fallout of death. When a loved one dies, the emotional turmoil and immediate memorialization needs take precedence over everything else. Shortly after the funeral, however, is when many mourners are forced to face their loved one's full end-of-life financials, wishes, needs and legal issues. 

The purpose of a legal will

The importance of creating a legal will cannot be overstated. In particular, when the deceased owned property, had children, or had specific plans for division of assets, a will can ensure that their wishes will be carried out according to the law. 

Dying without a legal will does not necessarily mean your wishes will not be carried out. However, there will be no clear understanding of your wishes, leaving many of the decisions up to your survivors to legalize in court. It also leaves your estate more open to court challenges by parties hoping to get a cut of your assets, or custody battles for dependants. 

Creating a legal will does not need to be expensive. Home will kits can help those with straightforward wishes ensure their estates are handled as instructed. (Getty Images)

Dying without a legal will

When a person dies and leaves no legal will behind, the term for this is intestate. Intestacy can apply to all, or part, of an estate. This means that their heirs will be determined by the individual state or province's rules of succession. 

In most places, intestacy rules say assets are to be inherited by the deceased's spouse and/or children. Assets may be split between children, the spouse, and in some cases the deceased's parents if they are still living, depending on the state or province. 

This process does not happen automatically. The lack of a will leaves the family open to claims by other relatives, friends, caretakers, and others. Claims to the estate may need to be proven in court, which can be costly and time-consuming. The extra expenses often eat into the final inheritance amount, leaving bereaved loved ones worse off financially than if a will had been created. 

Children and dependants

Without a will, a person who leaves behind minor children or other dependants does not get to make their final decisions about guardianship known. Godparents, close family friends, or other trusted adults may be left out of the decision-making process. 

Correcting custody and guardianship issues that arise from the lack of a will are usually expensive, emotional, and can last for years in court. Creating clear and legal documentation of your wishes and decisions provides a blueprint for how to handle your assets and children when you are gone. While most people do not relish the task of pre-planning for death, creating a will protects your interests when you are gone. 

Who needs a legal will?

Adults with assets, children, dependants, or special wishes would benefit from creating a legal will. If no property is owned, and no money is held, a legal will may not be as valuable. However, it is always preferable to leave clear wishes, so that survivors need not guess as they work to settle the final estate. 

Storing a legal will

A legal will is only helpful if it can be located by those administering the estate. Keeping it in a safe, fire- and flood-proof location is the best way to ensure that it will be intact at the time of your death. Ensuring loved ones, or a lawyer, knows where and how to locate it will ensure it is used to carry out your final wishes. 

Final Note

While it is not a guarantee, a will is the best way to ensure that your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets are followed, so take the time to make sure yours is up to date.

Related Blog Posts
Having trouble writing an obituary? Try our free interactive obituary template.

Fill in some information about your loved one, and we'll generate some text that you can use as a starting point for your online memorial.

Try now
Your loved one had a remarkable life. Tell their story, and we’ll publish it online for free.

After creating an online memorial, you can also publish in print in any of over 6,000 newspapers across North America.

Get started for free
Discover our blog
View more