This is part of an on-going series of blog posts titled the "What Is..." series, where we attempt to explain, in simple terms, common estate planning terms and concepts. To read other posts in this series, click here.
Simply put, intestacy is the word to describe what happens to your property when you die without a will. Intestacy is the state’s default method of determining your beneficiaries. This default is determined by the state in which you reside at the time you die (not the location of your death, say, if you die on vacation). If you reside in California when you die, and you don’t have a will, then the State of California has decided that your property goes to your surviving spouse (if you have one), if not, then to your children (if you have any), if not, then to your parents (if they’re still alive), if not, then to your siblings, then to your nieces/nephews, then to your uncles/aunts, then to your cousins, and on and on and on until someone in your family receives your property.
What if you literally have no other family by the time you die? Well, in that case, if you have no living relatives, the State of California will become the beneficiary.
Some people might look at the above and think, “Yes! That’s what I would want anyway! So why do I need a will?” A will is more than just how you are giving away your things. It’s used for selecting a guardian for your minor children. It’s also where you would nominate the person who would handle closing all of your final affairs. This person is called an executor. Think of the person paying for final bills (like an outstanding credit card bill or electric bill), who determines what to do with all of your knick-knacks, and other affairs of a personal nature. If you have a living trust, a will is necessary to ensure that all of the assets you never got around to transferring into your trust end up in your trust (called a “pour over will”).
If you die intestate (remember, that means without a will), none of your friends, girlfriend or boyfriend, or favorite charities will receive anything. Those people aren’t considered your relatives in the default scenario. Also, once your property passes on to someone else, you have no control what happens to it after that. Your property is now a part of that person’s estate and not yours. So, for example, if you wanted your things to go to your nieces/nephews but not to your siblings, you don’t get to control that if you die intestate. Intestacy goes in the order described above only.
The good news is that intestacy is a completely preventable situation! During your life you can create an estate plan (definitely a will and maybe a trust, depending on your situation) that will ensure that your assets go to the people or organizations you want them to go to. You also get to choose who gets to handle all of your final affairs, and to provide to them clear instructions.
To determine what kind of estate plan you and your family needs, please contact us for a free initial consultation.