If you die without a will, your property will generally pass according to state law (under the rules for intestate succession). When this happens, the state essentially makes a will for you. State laws specify how your property will pass, typically in certain proportions to various persons related to you. The specifics, however, vary from state to state.
Most state laws favor spouses and children first. For example, a typical state law might specify that your property pass one-half or one-third to your surviving spouse, with the remainder passing equally to all your children. If you don’t have children, in many states your spouse might inherit all of your property; in other states, your spouse might have to share the property with your brothers and sisters or parents.
But not all property is transferred by will or intestate succession. Regardless of whether you have a will, some property passes automatically to a joint owner or to a designated beneficiary. For example, you can transfer property such as IRAs, retirement plan benefits, and life insurance by naming a beneficiary. Property that you own jointly with right of survivorship will pass automatically to the surviving owners at your death. Property held in trust will pass to your beneficiaries according to the terms you set out in the trust.
Only property that is not transferred by beneficiary designation, joint ownership, will, or trust passes according to intestate succession. You should generally use beneficiary designations, joint ownership, wills, and trusts to control the disposition of your property so that you, rather than the state, determine who receives the benefit of your property.
Even if it seems that all your property will be transferred by beneficiary designation, joint ownership, or trust, you should still generally have a will. You can designate in the will who will receive any property that slips through the cracks.
And, of course, you can do other things in a will as well, such as name the executor of your estate to carry out your wishes as specified in the will, or name a guardian for your minor children.
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