[The following article was written by my colleague, Attorney Liz White of Marshall, Parker and Associates. It is republished here with her permission.]
Often I get the question, “Who will get my stuff if I don’t have a will?” I then undoubtedly frustrate the person with my answer, which is “It depends.”
The disposition of your assets may be controlled by a beneficiary designation or contract or other ownership arrangement. Otherwise, in Pennsylvania if you do not have a Will, the things you own will pass by intestate succession; a law that dictates the order and amount that your beneficiaries will inherit from your estate.
In simpler terms, the law says who gets your “stuff” if you die without a valid will. More specifically, however, who inherits your estate under intestate succession depends on who your living relatives are at the time of your passing.
Below are some of the more common scenarios of how your assets are distributed if you do not have a will at passing.
Married, No Living Parent(s), and No Issue
If you are married, have no surviving parents, and no surviving issue (i.e., children, grandchildren, and so forth down the line) your entire estate will pass to your spouse.
Married, Living Parent(s), and No Issue
If you are married with no issue, but a surviving parent or parents, generally your spouse will get $30,000.00 plus one-half of the balance of your estate. Your parent or parents receive the other one-half of the balance of your estate.
Married with Issue only of Spouse
If you are married and have issue, all of whom are also the issue of your surviving spouse, your estate will pass $30,000.00 plus one-half of the balance to your spouse and the other one-half of the balance to your issue.
Married with Issue that are not all Issue of your Spouse
With today’s modern family there are oftentimes children from prior marriages. In these situations, if you have any issue that are not issue of both you and your spouse, your spouse receives one-half of the estate, and the remainder one-half of your estate is paid to any issue you have, whether issue of your spouse or issue from a previous relationship.
Not married with Issue
If you are not married at the time of your passing, but have issue, your estate will pay to your issue.
Not Married, No Issue, Parent(s) Living
If you are not married and do not have issue, but your parents are living, your estate will pay to your parent or parents that are living at the time of your passing.
Not Married, No Issue, No Parent(s) Living
If you do not have a spouse, issue, or parents at your passing, your estate will pay to your brothers or sisters, or their issue (i.e., nieces and nephews, and so forth down the line).
The intestate statute continues to outline various scenarios of living relatives, and leaves your assets to those relatives in a particular order, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, aunt’s and uncle’s children and grandchildren. Finally, if none of these relatives are living, your estate will pay to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Generally, to determine the amount that issue, siblings, grandparents, aunts and uncles, aunt’s and uncle’s children and grandchildren will receive, the part of the estate that will pass to the group is divided in as many equal shares as there are persons in the nearest degree of consanguinity to you living, and to persons in the same degree that have died before you but have left issue that survive you.
It is important to point out that intestate law and a will only control certain assets. Assets that have named living beneficiaries or that are held jointly with right of survivorship will likely pass outside of your will.
As you can see, the intestate law is very complicated and confusing.
You, like many people, may be putting off signing a will. If you don’t have a will, this could be for a variety of reasons. You may be busy and telling yourself that there will be time later to get a will executed. Or, you might be under the impression that all of your assets will automatically pass to the person or persons you want with or without a will. Commonly, you, like most people, may not want to think or talk about dying. Whatever your reason is, it is important to understand the benefits of a will and what happens to your stuff without a will. Although making the decision to execute a will can be difficult, it takes away the “It depends” and ensures that the people that you choose inherit your estate at the time of your passing.