What if I have no will? The problem of intestacy

If you don’t yet have a will, you’re not alone. Nearly six out of every 10 adults in the UK haven’t made a will, and even among people over 55 the number without a will is over three in 10.

You may assume that there is no need to make a will, and that your loved ones will inherit your estate anyway. There are indeed rules in place to decide what happens when a person dies ‘intestate’ (without a will), but these will not always deliver a result that you or your loved ones would have wanted. In some scenarios, intestacy rules can cause your loved ones to miss out entirely and receiving nothing, or force them to pay a hefty inheritance tax bill that you could have avoided by making a will.

Here you can find out what happens to your assets if you die intestate, and many good reasons why everyone should make a will.

What does ‘dying intestate’ mean?

If you die without a valid will, you have died intestate. These means that your assets (everything you owned at the time of your death) will be distributed according to intestacy law.

How does intestacy law work?

Intestacy law distributes your assets to your family in a strict order of priority. It works like this:

If you are married with no children

Everything goes to your spouse or civil partner.

If you are married with children

Your spouse/civil partner receives everything up to the value of £250,000 and half of any remainder. The other half of the remainder is shared equally between the children.

If you are not married and have children

Everything is shared equally among your children.

If you are not married and have no children

Everything will be shared equally among one of the following groups of people (if they exist) in this order of priority:

  1. Parents
  2. Siblings (or their children, if they are deceased)
  3. Grandparents
  4. Uncles and aunts

What if I am living with someone but not married or in a civil partnership?

This is the biggest hazard of intestacy law. Under the rules, your partner would receive nothing at all, no matter how long you have lived together. The same goes for any children your partner may have (who are not your biological children or adopted by you) even if they were financially dependent on you; they would receive nothing.

What are the other risks of dying intestate?

Even if you’ve looked at the intestacy rules and find they would deliver the result you would want, bear in mind that your loved ones will inherit much more quickly if you leave a valid will. This can also help them to cover any funeral costs or inheritance tax that may be payable.

If you have no dependents or close family, you may not see the point of a will. But this simply means your assets will go to more distant relations. And if no relations can be found closer than aunts or uncles, then the Crown will inherit all your assets. So even if you have no close relatives, a will lets you choose to leave the money to close friends, charities or other good causes you want to support.

Dying intestate can also result in an unexpected and avoidable bill for inheritance tax. If you have substantial assets and are married with children, remember that the rules award the first £250,000 to your spouse and half the remainder to your children. Unlike your spouse, who is exempt, your children will have to pay inheritance tax if the total estate is above your nil-rate band.

Can intestacy rules be challenged?

You can’t contest an intestacy ruling in the same way that you can contest a will. However, if your loved one has died and you believe they would have wanted to leave you an inheritance, you can make a claim under the Inheritance (Provision for Family and Dependants) Act. You could do this for example if you were their unmarried partner, their unadopted step-child, or otherwise dependent on them financially. You must make your application within six months of the date probate is granted.  

Your only other alternative may be to persuade those who do inherit a share of your loved one’s assets to agree to include you in the inheritance. For example, if your partner’s children inherit but you do not (which may make them the legal owners of your home!) you can apply for a deed of variation or a deed of family arrangement to remedy the situation. You must make your application within two years of the person’s death. Bear in mind that both these processes may be stressful and will certainly be more costly than simply making a will in the first place.

If your loved one has died intestate and you are worried you will not inherit, a solicitor may be able to help. If you yourself are currently without a will, don’t put your loved ones in that position – make an appointment with a solicitor today.

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