What happens if you die without a last will and testament? Many people believe that if they die without a Will, their money goes to the State. This isn’t true. What really happens is that your money passes to those individuals whom various state statutes designate. These statutes are known as the Intestate Succession Statutes.
When an individual dies, his assets pass in one of three ways to his heirs—by operation of law, by contract, or by Will or intestate succession if he dies without a Will. If a married couple owns a house together, when one spouse dies, the house passes automatically to the surviving spouse. The house is said to pass by operation of law to the surviving spouse. The death of her spouse means that she owns the entire house in its entirety. She doesn’t have to do anything to become the absolute owner of the property.
When a life insurance policy is paid to a beneficiary after the death of the insured, this is an example of property passing by contract. The life insurance policy—the contract—dictates who will receive the property after the death of the insured.
If property isn’t passing by contract or by operation of law, then the individual’s Will controls who receives the property, and if the individual does not have a Will, then the intestate succession statutes control who will receive the property that does not pass by operation of law or by contract.
The intestate succession statutes are essentially what the New Jersey government believes to be fair to the surviving relatives of a deceased individual who dies without a Will. If you are a surviving relative of an individual who dies without a Will, you cannot challenge the intestate succession statues. In other words, you cannot say, “I took care of Aunt Rosie, so I should get all of her money, not you. You did nothing for her!”
Assuming that you actually did help Aunt Rosie no less fervently than Mother Teresa cared for the sick of Calcutta and her other relatives did absolutely nothing—in fact, let’s assume that the other relatives hated Aunt Rosie and let their hatred be known—it’s irrelevant. If Aunt Rosie dies without a Will, then her assets are going to pass in the manner specified in the intestate succession statutes.
Those statues are the embodiment of what the government believes to be fair and equitable and those statutes are unassailable. Aunt Rosie did not take the time to draft a Will for herself, so the government wrote a Will for her.
The people who will receive your estate if you die without a Will are a series of progressively less closely related individuals to you. Your spouse and your children are in the first tier of potential heirs. Next comes your parents, then your siblings, then your aunts/uncles, then your cousins, and so on down the blood line. Only if you have no relatives would your property pass to the state.
In most cases, a deceased person has some relative. The decedent might not have even know the person who inherits his estate. Such a person would be known as a “laughing heir,” because unlike close relatives who are saddened by the death of their loved one, laughing heirs are someone who never knew the decedent yet inherit his money.
Within a class of relatives of the same degree, relatives of the half blood inherit the same as relatives of the whole blood. What this means is, a half-brother inherits the same amount as a whole-blood brother of the decedent. A cousin of the half-blood inherits the same amount as a cousin of the whole-blood. This is important in today’s society of second and third marriages.