Estate Planning Guide
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Wednesday March 3, 2021

Savvy Living

Savvy Senior

What Happens if I do not Have a Will?

What happens to my possessions if I die without a will? I am almost 60 years old and have never gotten around to making one, but it is starting to become more of a priority.

The coronavirus crisis has shifted the importance of many of life's activities and has emphasized the need to have your affairs in order. It has been estimated that, fewer than half of American adults have prepared a will or living trust.

If you die without a will, the state you reside in will determine what happens to your assets. Every state has intestacy laws in place that parcel out property and assets to a deceased individual's closest living relatives when there is no will or trust in place. But these laws vary from state-to-state.

Here is a simple breakdown of what may happen to your assets. Circumstances may vary based on state laws.

Married with children: When a married individual with children dies without a will, all property, investments and financial accounts that are jointly owned automatically go to the surviving co-owner without going through probate, which is the legal process that distributes a deceased individual's assets. For all other separately owned property or individual financial accounts, the laws of most states award one-third to one-half to the surviving spouse, while the rest goes to the children.

Married with no children or grandchildren: Some states award the entire estate to the surviving spouse, or everything up to a certain amount (for example the first $100,000). Many other states award only one-third to one-half of the decedent's separately owned assets to the surviving spouse, with the remainder generally going to the deceased individual's parents or siblings.

Jointly owned property, investments, financial accounts, or community property automatically goes to the surviving co-owner.

Single with children: All state laws provide that the entire estate goes to the children, in equal shares. If an adult child of the decedent has died, then that child's children (the decedent's grandchildren) split their parent's share.

Single with no children or grandchildren: In this situation, most state laws favor the deceased individual's parents. If both parents are deceased, many states divide the property among the siblings of the deceased individual, or if they are not living, their children (the decedent's nieces and nephews). If there are not any living immediate family members, it goes to the next of kin, and if there is no living family, the estate passes to the state.

Make a Will

To ensure your assets go to those you want to receive them, you need to create a will or trust. If you have a simple estate and an uncomplicated family situation, there are do-it-yourself resources that can help you create all these documents for very little money. It is always advisable to consult with an attorney to ensure the documents meet state law requirements and will meet your goals.

If you want assistance or if you have a complicated financial situation, blended family or considerable assets, you should hire an attorney. An experienced attorney can make sure you cover all your bases, which can help avoid family confusion and provide peace after you are gone. Costs will vary depending on where you live, but you can expect to pay anywhere between $200 and $1,000 for a will.

Most states have directories of attorneys licensed to practice law, which may help you find someone in your area.

Savvy Living is written by Jim Miller, a regular contributor to the NBC Today Show and author of "The Savvy Living" book. Any links in this article are offered as a service and there is no endorsement of any product. These articles are offered as a helpful and informative service to our friends and may not always reflect this organization's official position on some topics. Jim invites you to send your senior questions to: Savvy Living, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070.

Published July 24, 2020
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