If you die without a will, the state will say who gets your estate.
In Pennsylvania, where I practice, the state has a set of rules for what’s called your “intestate estate.” (Our rules are similar to those in other states, but check the law where you live.)
But what is an intestate estate?
Pennsylvania defines it as “all or any part of the estate” of a deceased person that is “not effectively disposed of by will or otherwise.”
If you die with a will, hopefully it will take care of all your property, especially if it is drafted well. But it might not, for various reasons. For example, your will might leave some portion of what you own – or maybe all of it – to someone who dies before you do. That’s why you might have some or all of it “not effectively disposed of by will.”
On the other hand, what you owned could have been disposed of “otherwise” even if you didn’t have a will. Jointly held property, for instance, passes directly by law to the surviving owner if it is owned with a right of survivorship. (It’s different, though, if multiple parties own property as “tenants in common.” If one of the tenants dies, that tenant’s share is treated as owned by him or her alone.) Also, many accounts have beneficiary designations, which likewise pass property directly to the beneficiaries without going through a probate estate.
So an intestate estate is what was owned by the deceased in his or her own name, or as a tenant in common, and wasn’t given to an existing beneficiary through a will or other legal arrangement.
Who gets the intestate estate? Stay tuned – I’ll address that in later blog posts.