Dying without a will: Who gets what?

Published 4:19 pm Friday, March 12, 2010

Dear Savvy Senior,

What will happen to my property and money if I die without a will?

Dont Have Much

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Dear Dont,

If you die without a will, what happens to your assets will depend on the state you live in, and which of your family members are living at the time of your death. Heres what you should know.

Who gets what

No one ever really dies without a will. Thats because even if you dont get around to creating one yourself, the state you resided in will make one for you. But that also means the state gets to determine who gets your property and money not you.

The state laws that determine how your estate will be distributed if you die without a will are called intestacy laws, and they can vary greatly from state-to-state. The best way to find out how your state works is to go to MyStateWill.com. This is a free, user-friendly site that has an intestacy calculator for every state so you can get an exact breakdown of how your estate would be distributed.

In the meantime, here is a general (not state specific) breakdown of what can happen to a persons assets depending on who they leave behind.&bsp; &bsp;

* Married with children: When a married person with children dies without a will, all property, investments and financial accounts that are jointly held automatically goes to the surviving spouse, without going through probate, which is the legal process that distributes a deceased persons assets. But 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 $200,000). But many other states award only one-third to one-half of the decedents separately owned assets to the surviving spouse, with the remainder generally going to the deceased persons parents, or if the parents are dead, to brothers and sisters. (Note: Jointly owned property, investments, financial accounts, or community property automatically goes to the surviving spouse.)

* 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 childs children (the decedents grandchildren) split their parents share.

* Single with no children: In this situation, most state laws favor the deceased persons parents. If both parents are deceased, many states divide the property among the brothers and sisters, or if they are not living, their children (your nieces and nephews). If there are none of them, it goes to the next of kin, and if there is no living family, the state takes it.

Simple Wills

If you dont like the idea of your state handling your financial affairs after youre gone, you can change that by creating a simple will, and with all the self-help resources available today its quick, easy and inexpensive. For example, websites like Buildawill.com and Legacywriter.com create a will for you by asking you questions and inserting your answers. The whole process takes less than 30 minutes from start to finish and costs only around $20. Or if you need a little extra help, try Legalzoom.com for $69. This site works like the others, but then has a specialist double-check your answers for completeness.

Or, if you dont find the online resources appealing check out Nolos Quicken WillMaker Plus 2010 (Nolo.com, 800-728-3555), which offers a downloadable computer software program for $40, or a CD for $42. Nolo also offers a new online will service for $50. And if you dont have a computer, theres Nolos Quick & Legal Will Book ($13), which comes with legal forms and step-by-step instructions.

Send your senior questions to: Savvy Senior, P.O. Box 5443, Norman, OK 73070, or visit SavvySenior.org. Jim Miller is a contributor to the NBC Today show and author of The Savvy Senior book.