When a valid Last Will and Testament was not prepared and executed prior to the death of the a decedent, the law dictates that the decedent died intestate. In the absence of a valid will, the decedent’s estate will pass to any surviving heirs through the laws of intestate succession. Each state determines its own laws with regard to intestate succession; however, there are similarities among the states in both procedure and the laws of succession.
In most states, an intestate estate must pass through the probate court before any assets can be dispersed to heirs. The decedent’s estate must have a personal representative who oversees the probate process. A personal representative is either approved after a relative or family member petitions for appointment, or the court appoints one in the absence of a petition. Along with determining the value of all assets and debts of the estate, the court will also make an official determination regarding heirs of the estate. Heirs are people that may be in line to inherit through the laws of intestate succession in the state where the decedent died.
As a general rule, a spouse and/or children are first in line to inherit under intestate succession laws. When a child predeceases a parent, the child’s share often goes to the grandchildren. The percentage of the estate to which a spouse or child may be entitled will vary from one state to the next. Some states also allow a spouse to take a certain dollar amount from the estate before the estate is divided among the heirs. In the event that the decedent left no surviving spouse or children, then the intestate succession laws will dictate who will inherit the estate assets. Typically, siblings and parents are next in line followed by grandparents, aunts and uncles and so on until the estate assets have been exhausted.
In most states, in the rare event that there are no living heirs to an estate, the estate escheats to the state, meaning that the assets become the property of the state where the decedent died.