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What happens if someone dies without a will?

When Pennsylvania residents die without wills identifying their beneficiaries and the division of their assets, their property is going to pass through intestate succession to their heirs according to state law. What this means is that if people fail to make wills and pass away, state law will determine how their assets will be distributed. It is important to note that the way state law distributes the wealth may not be the way the decedent would want it distributed.

The order in which heirs inherit when there is no estate plan or will is known as intestate succession. This is basically a list of people who have the right to inherit and in what order. Close relatives take precedence over distant ones. Typically, a surviving spouse almost always gets half the decedent's estate. If there are no living children or grandchildren, the spouse might even get the whole estate. If all are living, children and spouses typically share the estate. Living grandchildren get a deceased parent's share proportionately, but otherwise may not be entitled to anything.

Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins are all further down the line. People who are not blood relatives of the deceased would not get anything, regardless of how emotionally close they were. Additionally, property that will pass directly to a named beneficiary by another means, such as a life insurance policy or retirement account, will not be included in intestate succession.

As the above process demonstrates, intestate succession does not take into account emotional bonds that a person forges over his or her life or family relations that have soured. Dying without a will could mean that an estranged spouse may get precedence over a long-term life partner and devoted grandchildren may be cut off. To avoid family disputes and ensure that one's loved ones are taken care of in the manner one wants, it might be prudent to create an estate plan and a will.

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