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The Implications of Dying Without a Will: What You Need to Know

by | Oct 19, 2023

In previous articles, we discussed what a will, power of attorney (POA), advanced medical directive (AMD), and beneficiaries are and why they are important. You’ve likely thought about these things across the years, with every intention of addressing them, but if you are like most people, your busy life pushes them to the bottom of the priority list.

Whether it’s lack of time, indecision about who should play the important roles, or a resistance to facing tough questions and contemplating mortality, there’s no shortage of reasons to procrastinate. It’s hard to make something a priority when you have no plans on dying or becoming incapacitated anytime soon. It’s an uncomfortable thing to contemplate, and for most of us, we won’t need to actually rely on those documents until well into the future. But there are no guarantees in life, and we need to be prepared for any possibility. So, what happens if you don’t have a will, beneficiary designation, POA, and AMD at a time when you need it?

How your assets are distributed without a will

Dying without a will is referred to as intestacy (or dying intestate). In this case, the distribution of your assets would be guided by the laws of your state. A court-appointed administrator would function similarly to an executor, but instead of taking direction from your explicit wishes (as an executor would with your will), the administrator would act in accordance with state law. Having beneficiaries designated for certain accounts can help guide the distribution of your assets to some degree, but if you neglect that, your assets will remain in a court-administered process.

Impact on minor children

Even more important for those with minor children, if you were to die without a will that spells out who you want to be your children’s guardian, the court would make this decision for you. State laws typically dictate that this must happen with each child’s best interest in mind, but that’s up to the court administrator to decide, and this may involve foster care. Few decisions are more personal than how your children are raised. Clear and explicit directions in your will can help to ensure that your wishes are carried out.

Importance of a will and critical estate documents

Maybe the court-appointed administrator will direct the distribution of your assets and custody of minor children just as you would hope, but how much are you willing to risk on that? While many states’ intestacy laws are based upon the 1990 Uniform Probate Code, there is a lot of variability in the actual laws themselves and no guarantee that those laws will not change in the future.

If you don’t already have a will in place, we hope this knowledge will compel you to get one written by a qualified estate attorney. And if you do have a will that’s old or outdated, this should be motivation to review it and have it updated if necessary.

Even before death, not having critical estate documents can have a huge impact on the decisions that are made on your behalf. In our next article, we’ll discuss what happens if you become incapacitated prior to death without the right documents in place.