You know what they say about the beauty of not making plans… that the essence of pleasure is spontaneity…? Well, I can’t say I completely disagree–there definitely is something about living bold, unbothered, and carefree!
(But I'm totally a planner... it can really drive my spontaneous husband nuts!)
The fact is, though, that while spontaneity may be ideal for travels and adventures and weekends with your gal pals and whatnot, the same cannot be said about other aspects of our lives, such as planning for incapacity or end-of-life.
Today, I’m talking about dying without a plan, or, in legal speak, intestacy.
Now don’t get me wrong–intestacy is not all that bad, in that there is a "safety net" of sorts in place to make sure that the best interests of the deceased and her loved ones are handled. These are your state laws on succession, compulsory heirs, capacity to succeed… We’ll get to those later!
With that, let’s go and learn about dying intestate–what is it, what are its repercussions, what do the laws say, and, essentially, what are the basics you need to know about intestacy!
What is intestacy?
As mentioned above, intestacy is dying without a plan or even a will in place. When someone dies intestate, how she had supposedly wanted to distribute her estate among her family and loved ones (or her chosen charity, perhaps?) wouldn't carry any weight. Because it wasn’t put into writing (in legally executed documents, that is), distributing that person's assets would depend on the state’s intestacy laws–on who will inherit, how much will be inherited, and so forth–and never on whatever the deceased had intended. In other words, if you die without a will, state law determines who gets everything you owned at the time of your death: your home, your car, your bank accounts, your personal property, etc.
If you had been saving your assets–assets you have worked so hard and many years for–for the benefit of specific people in your life, then yup, dying intestate is a cause of concern. In intestacy, these specific loved ones may not get to own what you had wanted them to own, after all.
What do the laws say?
Now that we have established that intestacy laws govern the distribution and management of the estate of the deceased who passed on without a plan, this necessarily begs the question: What then do intestacy/inheritance laws say?
Well, intestacy laws vary significantly by state, so what the rules on inheritance say in one state won't be true everywhere. For instance, states treat domestic partners very differently. There are states that consider registered domestic partners legally the same as spouses, which goes even for same-sex partners. (A win for the LGBT community, I must say!) Sadly, this isn’t the case for domestic partners in other states (sadly, including Missouri which has yet to recognize common law marriages). In these situations, the court may completely ignore the person that the deceased person shared much of their life with.
Zeroing in on Missouri, the law handles a person's assets differently based on a variety of factors:
Do they have a surviving spouse?
Do they have surviving children? If so, are the children also the children of the surviving spouse? Are there any foster children? Grandchildren, etc.?
If the deceased was unmarried and without kids, are there surviving parents? siblings? etc.
Was there spousal misconduct?
Are there any remaining debts?
and so on!
To figure alllllll this out and actually get the assets distributed to the heirs, the person's estate (the fancy word we use for all their belongings/assets) must go through a legal process called probate. Wanna learn more? Check out our post about probate basics or this one to explore whether probate is for you!
The complexity of an individual estate will vary greatly. While it's true that some estates do get to be distributed as easily as 1, 2, 3, sometimes (or oftentimes, to be more accurate), this isn’t the case.
With all of this said, it bears stressing that intestacy laws do try to make the best out of an unquestionably difficult situation, especially among the family left behind. But let’s face it–these rules do not always get to solve the knackering situation that is estate settlement. The law is but a general guide, after all. It doesn’t get to anticipate each and every kind of circumstance a person or her loved ones face and operate under. It also, almost always, doesn’t put in place what deceased estate owners had wanted and planned for their estates.
And this is where estate planning comes into the picture.
Estate planning addresses your specific situation, needs, and preferences, as well as that of your family and loved ones. It works to anticipate personal circumstances that laws–general as they are–can’t.
Want to talk more about intestacy? Explore ways to avoid probate? Or to kick off your estate plan, perhaps? ;) Would love to chat all the same!!
Can’t wait to hear from you!