Why You Want to Avoid Intestacy
When planning for the future, leaving things to chance is rarely wise. This holds especially true for your assets and estate distribution after you're gone. Intestacy, or dying without a valid will, can lead to unintended consequences that may impact your loved ones and create unnecessary complications.
About two out of three Americans will die without a will. This is known as dying intestate.
While the reasons for not having a will vary, the result is the same for everyone: they do not get to choose who receives their property when they die. Instead, their money and property are distributed according to the laws of their state in a process called intestate succession.
This is a good thing. In most states, a person’s spouse, children, parents, and siblings are given priority in the line of succession. But even if someone is okay with their next of kin receiving all of their money and property, a beneficiary can still be required to go through a lengthy and costly court process when there is no will.
State law can only assume how the typical person would dispose of their estate, when a state’s default intestacy laws do not align with the actual preferences of the decedent about who should get what, this can lead to several issues.
Sample State Intestacy Laws
It is understandable why people do not want to talk or think about death. But dying without a will takes power out of the individual’s hands and puts it in the hands of the state and its one-size-fits-all intestacy laws.
For a general idea of what happens when a person dies intestate, here is how intestacy law works in a few states:
Things can get trickier when children inherit by law from their parents. Adopted children have the same rights as biological children, but foster children and stepchildren do not unless they are legally adopted.
The state of California differentiates between community property and separate property. The former generally includes all property acquired by either spouse during the marriage, while the latter is obtained before or outside the marriage.
When a person dies intestate in California while married and they have one child or grandchild, the spouse inherits all of the community property and half of the separate property; the child or grandchild inherits the rest. If they die married and intestate with two or more children, the spouse gets all of the community property and one-third of the separate property, with the rest split equally among the children.
California also has a few unique intestacy laws. For example, half-siblings who share a parent are treated as whole siblings for intestacy purposes, and children born after the decedent’s death are treated as heirs.
In Florida, intestate succession hinges on whether a person is married and has children with their spouse.
Note that in Florida, if the spouse has children from another relationship, they inherit nothing under intestacy laws. The decedent’s biological children, even those from another marriage, are given preference over a surviving spouse’s children from another relationship.
Florida places legally adopted children on the same level as biological children. Grandchildren only receive an intestate share if their parent (i.e., the decedent’s son or daughter) is not alive to receive their share.
Potential Consequences of Dying Intestate. The above examples should be sufficient to show how state intestacy laws, while broadly similar from state to state, vary in detail and can quickly get complicated, especially when a family is blended and does not have a typical nuclear structure. Because more than half of marriages now end in divorce, most families have shifted from having a biologically bonded mom, dad, and kids to a blended family structure..
Nonblood Beneficiaries. Default intestacy laws can leave out not only stepchildren, foster children, and children placed for adoption but also close family friends, charities, and others unrelated by blood.
Who Receives the Money and Property—and How Much? Intestacy laws are rigid about who receives how much. Intestate shares are statutorily determined and do not consider special circumstances, such as an heir receiving income-based financial aid and may be disqualified from further benefits due to an estate disbursement. This could be avoided by placing money and property in a trust for that individual’s benefit.
Parents commonly divide their money and property equally among their children, but no law requires this, and there are good reasons why some parents do not want equal distributions. State intestacy laws preclude unequal distribution as well as intentional disinheritance of a child.
These special circumstances require nuance in an estate plan, but state intestacy laws are not nuanced. Intestacy can also give rise to the following additional issues:
To clarify, not all accounts and property pass through probate when somebody dies without a will. Some accounts and property bypass probate, including those jointly owned with survivorship rights, accounts with beneficiary designations, and transfer-on-death and payable-on-death accounts. Anything owned by the decedent in their name at death without a
 When There Is No Will, NYCourts.gov, https://nycourts.gov/courthelp/whensomeonedies/intestacy.shtml (last visited July 26, 2023).
 Cal. Prob. Code § 6401 (West 2022), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PROB§ionNum=6401.
 Cal. Prob. Code § 6406 (West 2022), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PROB§ionNum=6406.
 Cal. Prob. Code § 6407 (West 2022), https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?lawCode=PROB§ionNum=6407.
 Fla. Stat. § 732.102, http://www.leg.state.fl.us/statutes/index.cfm?App_mode=Display_Statute&Search_String=&URL=0700-0799/0732/Sections/0732.102.html.
 Stepfamily Statistics, The Step Family Foundation, https://www.stepfamily.org/stepfamily-statistics.html (last visited July 26, 2023).