What Happens If You Die Without a Will?

What Happens If You Die Without a Will?A well-drafted will is a vital part of any estate plan. However, millions of Americans die without a will each year. Failing to have a will in place at the time of your passing can make things challenging for your loved ones and may result in your estate being distributed in manner that is not aligned with your wishes. Discussing your estate planning goals with a wills and trusts lawyer and creating a will can give you peace of mind and ensure that your legacy lives on as intended.

What Is Intestate Succession?

It is a common misconception that all property goes to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania when someone dies without a will. In actuality, this is a rare occurrence. In Pennsylvania, when someone dies without a will their assets are distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. This means that the probate court will distribute your estate to your closest relatives in a particular order of succession. Typically, the order is as follows:

  • Surviving spouse of the decedent
  • Children or grandchildren of the decedent
  • Parents of the decedent
  • Siblings or nieces and nephews of the decedent
  • Grandparents of the decedent
  • Decedent’s aunts, uncles, and their children and grandchildren
  • Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

Each case is unique. There are specifics that are taken into consideration when distributing an estate, such as whether or not a decedent’s children are also the children of the surviving spouse. An estate lawyer can help you understand the laws of intestate succession so you have an idea of what could potentially happen if a close family member has died without a will.


Most estates in Pennsylvania must pass through probate, even if there is a valid will. Some assets that typically do not have to be probated include proceeds from life insurance, retirement accounts, joint bank accounts, and living trusts. Joint tenancy property is also exempt from probate in most cases. If your estate has to be probated without a will, your loved ones will most likely have to hire a lawyer to explain the probate process and guide them through it. If there is a family conflict or other issues surrounding the estate, probate can be a long, costly process. In addition, if you are the only surviving parent of minor children, the court will appoint guardians for them, which can leave your children in the charge of people who may not have their best interests in mind.

Benefits of Having a Will

The best way to plan for your future and properly provide for your loved ones is to create a comprehensive estate plan. This is particularly important if you own a business. Using a full-service law firm with business attorneys and estate planning lawyers who work collaboratively can help to ensure all your legal bases are covered and your beneficiaries’ inheritance is maximized. Even if you have a very simple estate with few assets, having a lawyer help you draft a will is an affordable, easy way to make your wishes known and take some of the burden off your loved one’s shoulders.