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Steps to Take When Your Relative Dies Without a Last Will
When a person dies without a legal will, it’s called dying “intestate”. In a case of such death, determining the distribution of the deceased’s assets becomes the responsibility of a probate court. What may worry you about this is that the potential heirs have no say over who gets the estate when it happens. What is more, probate can be a lengthy process that can take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on how complicated the case is.
So what do you do when your close relative dies, and there’s no will left? You might start by conducting a diligent search for the will – just because you weren’t aware they might’ve prepared it doesn’t mean that it’s not there. Making an appointment with a lawyer is also a wise step to take and ensure that you gather a list of your relative’s assets, financial statements, and tax returns. To further ensure that you’re not faced with too many unpleasant surprises, you might also want to find out what probate sale is, how long it might take to settle, and what you need to make the whole process as smooth as possible.
Below, you will find more details about essential steps to take when your relative dies without a will.
Look for the Will
The first thing you should do is conduct a diligent and thorough search for the will. Go through the deceased’s file cabinets and records, ask the accountant or lawyer they’ve been working with in the past, or talk to other family members or friends. Your relative might’ve gone to someone you don’t know about to make the will without your knowledge.
Wills don’t have expiration dates, so if you find one, but it’s old, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no legal power. If you manage to find an “old” will, but it hasn’t been revoked by the deceased, it’s the will that will be probated.
Check if They Had a Safe Deposit Box
A safe deposit box is an individually secured container housed in the vault of a federally insured bank or credit union. The deceased might’ve owned one you weren’t aware of, and that’s where the will might be. However, getting to it might prove challenging or impossible unless the deceased named you as a signatory on the box – then you’ll be able to access it. If that’s not the case, you’ll have to adhere to your state’s laws. This might mean preparing a special petition to gain access to the box. Some states, though, might require a full probate petition.
Seek Legal Counsel
When a person dies without a will, the task of distributing their property falls on the court, as guided by the state’s laws. A probate proceeding is thus started, and the court determines who gets what. You can seek legal counsel to handle the case if you are related to the deceased.
The lawyer can guide you through the process and help you decide what to do with the estate. If you don’t have a family lawyer already, you might want to ask friends and family for recommendations.
Having legal representation provides numerous benefits, including:
- Having someone who can protect your rights,
- Ensuring that you understand all aspects of your case,
- Knowing that everything will be handled by someone who knows what they are doing,
- Having someone who will work towards getting you the best possible outcome.
Make an Inventory of Their Assets
Once you’re sure there’s no will, you need to make an inventory of the deceased’s assets. This includes personal possessions like jewelry, car, furniture, and other valuable items. You should also make a note of any financial documents that may help you get an idea of their overall financial situation. As stated earlier, you can do this by getting a list of their bank accounts and credit cards, along with their tax records and retirement fund statements.
What Will Happen if the Estate Goes Into Probate?
If an estate without a will goes into probate, there’s a number of intestate succession laws that decide who will inherit, and they can differ significantly by state. However, what usually happens is that the estate ends up being split between the surviving spouse and the children of the deceased. If someone wasn’t married and had no kids, it’s the state’s task to find the living relatives and then decide who will inherit. In case no relatives can be found at all, everything goes to the state.
A will is basically a legal document stating how you want your property to be distributed after your death. Although some people choose not to have a will, it’s highly recommended that you do. After all, if you die without one, the distribution of your estate falls on the court, and it can get quite complicated and costly. It’s not unusual for a probate proceeding to last a few years, which means that you also need to factor in legal fees and court costs.