What Happens When You Die Without a Will?

We live in an age where family relationships are becoming increasingly complex. With the rise in stepfamilies and unmarried cohabiting partners, a well-drafted will has become an even more important document than ever before.

Most of us want to know that the people we love will inherit what’s ours after we die, but a surprising number of people in the UK haven’t put anything in place to make sure that happens. Many are under the misapprehension that their loved ones will automatically be entitled to inherit their assets, regardless of whether there’s a will in place. However, if you die without formally setting out your wishes (known as dying intestate), the courts will distribute your estate according to the Rules of Intestacy.

The Rules of Intestacy

There are strict criteria as to who can inherit. The relationships that are recognised under the Intestacy Rules in the Administration of Estates Act 1925 include:

  • Spouse/civil partner – if the deceased’s estate was worth less than £250,000, the spouse or civil partner will inherit the entire estate. If the amount is over that threshold, the spouse will still inherit everything if there are no children. If there are children, the spouse/civil partner is entitled to the first £250,000, the personal possessions and half of the remaining estate.
  • Children – if the deceased was not married or in a civil partnership but had children, those children will inherit the entire estate. If they are under 18, the inheritance will be held in trust for them until come of age. The legislation includes adopted children but excludes stepchildren.
  • Grandchildren
  • Parents
  • Full or half siblings
  • Grandparents
  • Aunts and uncles

The courts will prioritise these relationships as they filter down to decide on the correct distribution under the law. If someone doesn’t have any surviving relatives, their estate will go to the crown.

Wills and the modern family

Although the Rules of Intestacy are designed to bring some order to the process of determining who gets what from the deceased’s estate, they do not guarantee a fair and equitable result for those you leave behind. For example, the legislation doesn’t recognise some important modern family relationships, such as unmarried or ‘common-law’ partners and stepchildren.

That’s why if you have more complex family set-up or haven’t formalised your relationship with your partner, making a will is vital to truly ensure that your assets go where you want them to and your family are protected.

If there is a case that surviving dependants will suffer financial hardship as a result of the implementation of the Intestacy Rules, they can apply for reasonable financial provision from the estate. However, this is not guaranteed and involves extra, often stressful, legal action that could all be avoided by simply taking the time to create a will in the first place.

Keeping your wishes up to date

In essence, prevention is better than cure – making a will not only means you can choose exactly who gets what, but it ensures your loved ones won’t have to worry about coping with any legal wrangles at what is already a difficult time.

It’s important to note that the Rules of Intestacy also apply to invalid wills. If a will is deemed not valid, the estate will be dealt with as if there was no will and be distributed in accordance with the legislation. That’s why it’s also important to get a professional to draft your will properly - excluding potential obstacles to your assets being distributed according to your wishes.

Keeping an existing will up to date is another consideration if you want to minimise potential problems with distributing an inheritance. For example, things could get very messy if you divorce and remarry but fail to amend your will accordingly!

Talk to a professional

If you’d like to speak to a wills and probate expert about drafting a will to protect your family, get in touch with our friendly legal team. We’ll help you get your affairs in order, giving you peace of mind for the future.

The contents of this article are intended for general information purposes only and shall not be deemed to be, or constitute legal advice. We cannot accept responsibility for any loss as a result of acts or omissions taken in respect of this article.