The old adage, “where there’s a will there’s a way” might not have been intended to apply to wills people have for their estates. However, wills do provide direction for who gets a person’s assets after they pass away. But what happens when a person dies without a will?
The recent untimely death of music superstar Prince has drawn attention to what happens when someone dies without a will. Here’s what’s been reported about Prince so far: he had no spouse; he had no surviving children or grandchildren; he had five siblings who are living, four of them are half siblings.
It’s likely that Prince’s assets at the time of his death were very significant, and right now it appears he had no will.
When someone dies without a will, state law determines who receives the deceased person’s assets and how much of the total estate goes to each person.
Let’s imagine that Prince was a Connecticut resident (which he in fact was not). Based on the information above, his estate would be divided equally among his siblings – there would be no distinction between full and half siblings: all would share equally after expenses and claims are paid.
Persons who stand in line to inherit from a deceased person when there is no will are called heirs. Heirs have legal rights. Even if there is a will, heirs must receive notice of the initial probate hearing to give them the opportunity to attend the hearing and object to or to support the admission of the will to probate.
Wills usually name someone to be the executor of the estate. The executor, only after appointment by the court, is responsible for protecting the assets of the estate, administering the estate in probate court, and using the assets of the estate to pay administration expenses, creditors, and beneficiaries.
I sometimes hear people say that they are a living relative’s executor, but that is not an accurate statement. A person does not become an executor unless and until the person who has a will dies, the will is admitted to probate, the person named in the will as executor is willing and able to serve as executor, and the probate court appoints the executor.
When someone dies without a will, or none of the executors named in the will are able to serve, an administrator will be appointed by the probate court. The administrator’s role is similar to that of an executor. It’s common for the administrator to be a relative of the person who died.
Some of the speculation as to why Prince had no will involve common reasons why many people should have wills. Having a family that includes minor children increases the need for someone to have a will. Among other things, a will allows a parent of minor children to name a guardian for those children in the event both parents pass away. Since Prince had no surviving children, that reason for having a will likely doesn’t apply in his case.
Because Prince had no spouse, tax planning for the benefit of a surviving spouse does not apply. However, it’s likely that if Prince’s assets were valued in excess of $5.4 million at the time of his death, his estate will have federal estate tax liability. Federal estate tax liability may be reduced by leaving gifts to charitable organizations in a will or trust.
Proper estate planning increases the likelihood that someone’s assets will go to the people and organizations of their choice. With no will, assets will go to heirs at law. Many people have a limited or even incorrect understanding of what this means for them and their assets after they pass away. The objectives of estate planning go beyond providing for a surviving spouse or children, and minimizing federal and state estate tax liability. Proper estate planning should be based on the goals of the person for whom the estate plan is created. Competent estate planning attorneys take the time to understand their client’s asset portfolio and their client’s values and objectives; explain options to the client, and create an effective estate plan customized for each client.
This blog is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be, nor should it be relied upon as legal advice. Please consult with a competent attorney for advice as to your particular situation.
COPYRIGHT 2016 by DOMENICK N. CALABRESE. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. COPYING, DISSEMINATION OR USE WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.