What Happens When a Person Dies Without a Will or a Trust? What is intestate?

When you pass away, who will inherit your assets/your estate is dependent on a number of factors.

One of the most important factors is how your assets are titled. If the asset was in a trust – it will be controlled by the terms of that trust. If the asset was held jointly with another person then it might be subject to the terms of that joint ownership and pass automatically to the co-owner. If the asset had named beneficiaries as many life insurance and retirement accounts do, then it will pass to those people automatically.

If you pass away and you have assets just in your name alone, without a will to say otherwise your estate will be subject to the laws of intestate succession.

Under the Probate Code who is entitled to your estate, when you die without a will, is spelled out in very particular detail. It is referred to as the Law of Intestate Succession. It will depend upon if you were married or not at the time of your death and if you were married it will depend upon the character of the property.

A single person’s estate would pass to the following groups of people in the following order:

  1. If you had children – it will go to your children in equal shares. If any of your children predeceased you, their portion would drop down and be divided equally amongst their surviving children and so on.
  2. If you were single but had no children then your estate will go to your parents. Even if your parents have divorced one half goes to your mother and one half goes to your father, or the survivor of them.
  3. If you are not survived by children or parents then your estate would go to your siblings in equal shares.

The general order of succession for a single person is Children; Grandchildren; Parents; Siblings; Nieces and Nephews; Grandparents; Aunts and Uncles; Cousins and so on. At a certain point – but it does take awhile – without any living blood relatives your estate will escheat to the State of California.

If you are married and you die without a will then the first question is – what is the character of the property?

Your community property – assets acquired during your marriage and not by gift or inheritance – will pass by intestate succession 100% to your surviving spouse.

If you are married and you have no will and the character of the assets in question are your Separate Property – i.e. assets you brought to the marriage and kept separate or assets you acquired during your marriage by gift or inheritance will be divided as follows:

If the decedent had 1 child then the asset will go ½ to the surviving spouse and ½ to the surviving child.

If the decedent had more than one child then the asset will pass 1/3 to the surviving spouse and 2/3rds in equal shares to all the decedent’s children. So even if the decedent had 10 children the surviving spouse would receive 1/3 and the 10 kids equally share the remaining 2/3rds.

If the decedent was married and had separate property but never had children or was not survived by children -then the surviving spouse will receive ½ and the other ½ will be distributed as described above – ie to the parents; siblings; nieces and nephews; grandparents; etc.

This is why it is so important to make sure that you have created a comprehensive estate plan. Even just having a will to document WHO you want to inherit from you is an important minimum step. If you die intestate it will not matter what you told your family, friends and loved ones about who you wanted to leave your estate to. The law is the law and the only way to have your estate distributed to who you want and how you want is to create at minimum a valid will.  If you truly want to ensure things go the way you want and even set your estate up to avoid Probate, then for reasons clarified in other articles on this website, ideally in a trust based estate plan.


  1. I have read countless articles on this topic, yet not a single one addresses the issue of divorced parents. As you know, since nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce, it would be helpful if someone would outline this law for the other half of the population.

    • Actually – this article does address what happens to a single person’s estate if they did not have an estate plan. Single can be due to – never marrying; divorce or widowhood… Thanks

  2. If my mother divorce and I’m her daughter how do I become a poe or executive???? I don’t believe she had a will

    • If your mother is alive – she needs to actively create legal documents in order for you to hold one of these roles. If she is not alive or not competent then you would apply through the court processes to help her or settle her estate.

  3. Don Siedenburg says

    The question is: My wife passed away in a nursing home without a will. She has
    three live children from her first marriage and one child who is deceased. We were married for 30 years. I have initiated a negligence lawsuit through my attorney against the nursing home where she spent her last two years. It’s title is Estate of Siedenburg vs Shabbona (Illinois) Healthcare Center. If this suit be successful how shall the proceeds be divided after the State of Illinois Medicaid Department’s balance is satisfied.

  4. What happens if a person took over payments of her father’s house when he died, then a year later that person died…she had 3 kids, one 16 by one father 2 under 10 by another father…the house still has a good chunk left to pay on the mortgage. Can the ex with the 2 kids take the house?

    • As with most things – the answer is – it depends. The house still belongs to the predeceased father’s estate. His estate needs to be probated. If he only had the one heir then yes – her children will succeed to her interest. However, if the predeceased father had other heirs-at-law then the house will pass to them in proportion to their interest and the children will only succeed to their mother’s portion. The spouse or ex-spouse of the deceased mother have no legal rights unless she had a valid will leaving them something.

  5. If someone purchased vehicles with inheritance and titled the assets in his name only, and died without a will, are the vehicles Community or Separate property?

  6. Generally speaking if the one who died without a will was separated for 6+ months and initiating divorce proceedings…a lawyer was given money and the paperwork was in some degree completion….can that be taken into consideration in determining heirs. Separated spouse is not the surviving child’s biological mother. Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • Thank you for your question and your patience. A married couple is a married couple- until such time as a court order says otherwise. Therefore, even though the divorce was started – unless they had binding agreements about assets or inheritance rights OR there was a court order putting them back to their single status – then the decedent left a surviving spouse. What rights that person would have would depend on many factors; including – did the deceased have a valid will; what was the character of the assets the deceased owned; did the deceased have any surviving children; etc.

  7. So I live in NJ. My 3rd cousin from California died without a will. The estate sold for 2.4 million. My question is …How much will the state take out in taxes since my cousing didnt have a will?>>>>

    • Jim – there will be no estate or inheritance taxes in California – as California currently has no State Estate Tax law nor an Inheritance tax. The estate itself may need to settle up Income Taxes of the deceased, but those expenses come from the estate as a whole. Lastly, whether or not the great state of New Jersey will impose a tax on your inheritance is unknown by me as I am only licensed in CA. I suggest you speak to a knowledgeable CPA in your area. Thanks – Jen

  8. What would happen if a mother passed, had two surviving kids, but the older one is in prison? Who all the money go to the child who isn’t in prison? or would it still be equally distriputed?

    • The answer depends. Many states have laws that mandate that the incarcerated person’s share be offered to victim’s compensation or similar requirements. The person administering the estate should seek legal advice.

  9. CALIFORNIA: Married man purchased property as Single man sole and separate property during the time he was not living with wife. The wife never lived on the premises after his purchase. He later quit claim deed the property to Himself And a another woman. The wife went to probate court and was granted 75% ownership of the property. He has surviving children prior to his marriage whom where not granted anything. Is she really entitled to 75% of the property if he acquired while they were separated. They did not obtain a legal separation through the court just have not lived together for 20 years. Is his children entitled to anything?

  10. Kyle Bradshaw says

    If your dad passes of cancer and your stepmother tells you he had no will. How are you to know if he has separate assets that would be divided?

    • Thank you for your patience. The answer is it depends… Basically you would have to gather information about his assets and see how he held title to them. If it is real estate then those records are public records and you could obtain a title report or similar report to determine how he owned it. If it is bank accounts, investment accounts etc. then it will be more difficult unless you have or had access to that information from him. If you have information that you strongly believe means that he did have substantial separate property just in his name then you would want to consult with a estate litigation attorney in your area to determine your rights and how to best protect your rights. Good luck

  11. i understood above. to be sure, however if a husband who chooses to have no will, in order to punish his wife: cars and home go to her because of co-ownership on papers/deeds; business goes to business partner with corporate 50/50 sub-chapter S; all remaining assets, bank accts, stocks, investments without designated beneficiaries, etc., and solely in his name, go to wife 1/3, three children 2/3. after probate/taxes,etc. yes?

    • Sorry for the delayed reply. The answer to your question is a little more involved. Title is a presumption – ie if something is held WITH another person then if in joint tenancy or community property – the presumption is it passes to the survivor, that presumption can be overcome if the facts are in support of a different result. If title is solely in one person’s name then the presumption is it is their separate asset. HOWEVER when people are legally married or registered – then what will really happen to that asset is dependent on is it the title holders Separate Property or is it really Community Property. IF it is really Community Property then without a will or trust saying otherwise it would all pass to the spouse but he or she would have to do paperwork to make it so & that paperwork might have to go through probate court.

  12. What if someone was single before and made a trust and have benefeciary. Then, he got married later on, is the recent spouse will have no benefits if a person died?

    • If the person who made the trust did not amend or update it after the marriage and then passed away leaving that spouse surviving – then the surviving spouse is considered an omitted or pretermitted spouse and they can file a claim to take against the estate. How much they may be able to claim will depend on many facts. If the person updates their estate plan to show that they are now married then the surviving spouse is not considered omitted.

  13. Dad passed away he had purchased a home with his first wife my mother then remarried after mom passed away. He told his 3 children that he left the home to them, but his new wife says that he signed it over to her after he went into a nursing home. how can we find out if he did sign this over to her and would this be legal.

    • Thank you for your patience. Records regarding real estate are public records and an interested person can research the chain of title to any piece of real estate to ascertain what if any transaction occurred.

  14. My father passed away and I’m lead to believe he did not have a will nor living trust. He owned a home and 2 vehicles, one vehicle has a loan balance, one of his children has the vehicle. Regarding the home, a reverse mortgage was done on the house, not sure if it was a single disbursement amount or monthly disbursement amount. If a single disbursement amount was taken for $200K and one of his children took that money and purchased their home, would that money be considered part of the estates assets? and also the vehicle with a balance due? there are 6 surviving children and 4 children he had from a previous relationship (no marriage).

    • I am not sure I understand your question. Based on the information you gave – if your father was a CA resident and if the gross fmv of his assets were $150,000.00 or more on his date of death then it would appear that a probate should be started. If other people benefited improperly from your father’s estate then you may want to seek legal counsel in regards to that. In any event you or the person who wants to be in charge of settling your father’s estate should seek legal advice from a probate attorney in the geographical area near where he lived.

  15. I’ve been married for 41 years and I do not have a will and or a living trust. My marriage is heading in the direction of divorce and I would like to create a will to designate the distribution of my half of the community property (CA). What type of will do you recommend?

    • You should consult with an appropriate estate planning attorney in your area to give you specific legal advice. This Website is not the place for that. If you need referrals to an attorney in your vicinity you can call our office or look to a resource called http://www.estateplanning.com/. I wish you all the best.

  16. I was made aware of money left after a relative passed. My grandmother was a niece
    He had no children, never married, and parents deceased along with siblings. How will the money be split? There are 5 nieces(1 being my grandmother whom is deceased), 1 grandnephew, and 5 great grandnieces. How will the assets be divided
    Thank you!

    • Thank you for your patience. I am not clear on who this person’s true heirs at law would be.

      If he had no surviving spouse & then no children or grandchildren – then the order would go –

      Parents – if none – siblings – if none nieces & nephews.

      If the level with living people is the nieces – then based on what you wrote – it would be shared by those 5 “people” – if any had pre-deceased him then their 1/5 would drop down to their children. If a niece pre-deceased him and didn’t have children – then the asset would be divided amongst the 4 surviving.

      I hope this is helpful.

  17. opal Benton says

    My dad died over a year ago he left no will ,he owned a peanut business Alot if tractors no will my step mom took his name off if the peanut farm llC added hers saying it us all hers ,land business homes so on.He has 3 children my his first marriage, none by his last one…We have been told she gets half and the other half is ours but she can even get a piece of ours ,,so I see reading this article she could get only 1/3 which is the truth 1/2 are1/3 could you email me please ….teresafire777 @gmail.com…thanks so much..Opal Benton

    • Opal – I can’t give you an exact answer over this website. I would recommend for specific legal advice you consult with an attorney. IN GENERAL – if your father had Separate Property & No Will or Trust – then your step mom’s interest is only 1/3. However, IF the assets were actually Community Property – then he owned 1/2 and she owned 1/2 and without a will or trust ALL of his Community Property would pass to her. I would recommend you call & speak to an attorney about the specifics of your father’s estate if you want specific legal advice. Thanks – Jen

  18. Cheryl Russell says

    If my Dad has been killed by a drunk driver and I am named by probate court as the administrator of the estate,can my brother who is an heir contest the estate if he is incarcerated with victims in which he owes restitution?

    • Sorry for the late reply and I am very sorry for your father’s passing. If your brother owes restitution that will usually have to be dealt with before he can receive any benefit from the estate. Many states have laws that mandate the notification of a victim’s compensation board or similar entity. You should consult the attorney assisting you with your dad’s probate for specific advice for your situation.

  19. My mother passed and she was single their is just me and my brother..he said she told him that his kids can have her trailer and car and he said she told him he gets half of money.she jus had $1000.00 in checking account and it had my name on it also.and she had one $5000. Policy with jus my name as benificary.my question is does he get half the cash if he getting trailer and.car

  20. She didn’t have a will and even if he gets trailer and car put in his kids name he will still benefiting from them

    • You should get specific legal advice. In general, the title of assets sets up a presumption of who is entitled to those assets upon another person’s death. If you were named as the sole beneficiary on an asset then that asset should belong to you. What a person “tells” another person about who gets what is not enforceable.

  21. I would like to know whether or not if Princes ex-wives are entitled to any of his estate even though the wasn’t a will left.

    • An ex-wife would not be a deceased person’s heir-at-law. If there is a order from a family law court that mandates some benefit after an ex-spouse’s death -that is the only way that an ex would be entitled to anything after death. If the person who died had set up a will or trust and they wanted to provide for an ex-spouse – of course they could do so. BUT, without a will or trust – the only possible interest would be if a divorce decree mandated something. Usually that is life insurance and that is usually only if there are children.

  22. cherrl bosh says

    Question: what if, my husband had a active law suit against the county. He died and then it was settled. His attorneys says that the money was to be divided equally amongst me the spouse, his father and his mother. So we all got a 3rd of the money. But I your article it states I should be in titled to 1/2 and the parents would have 1/2 to divide?

    • Cherri – I am sorry for your loss. I can’t comment on a specific case without knowing more. I would suggest that you contact an attorney in your geographic area for a more specific explanation. Good luck.

  23. Moriah Messineo-Benge says

    I have conservator-ship of my grandmother, she has 3 surviving children. When she passes (she has no will). Do I then file with the court to petition to become her admin and then sell off the assets, etc and then file another petition to distribute the assets to her heirs, which from my understanding of your article would be her 3 children? Also, I am currently residing in her house with her as her caregiver so can I remain in the house until all of this is wrapped up or do I have to move upon her passing?

    • Moriah – your thoughts about what needs to happen and how things will pass when your grandmother dies are in general correct. You will have to move from the house – but you may be able to stay until it actually sells. You should consult with an attorney in your geographic area at that time. Good luck to you

  24. patty garrett says

    My husbands twin brother passed. My husband is the Only true Blood relitave, The rest are have the same Mother but Different fathers, Who is the Person or Persons to get his Assets?

    • I can’t answer your question without more information. Your husband should get legal advice from a probate attorney who practices in the state where his brother was a resident when he passed away. Good luck.

  25. Bogs Cola says

    My wife died without a will and she has several properties. I know I have to share it to my 5 adult children. My question can I make a separate agreement to my children that I get 100% & managed the properties?

    • In general anything is possible if all involved parties are agreeable. I can’t comment on whether or not the properties have to be “shared”. What state your wife was a resident of when she passed away and then the character of the property may or may not lead to that answer. You should get legal advice from an attorney who is familiar with probate law in your wife’s state.

  26. Elisabet Rojas says

    Hello, My mother in law passed away 2001. She has 14 children from 3 different men. Her last marriage ended in 1974 . She filed for divorce. The property where she lived at is still under her deceased fathers name in Texas . My husband lived with her until her death and his eviction that his dad did. Her ex-husband would come and go. She lend him a separate room in her house to use because he had no where to go. They didn’t live as husband and wife. My question to you is : he is fighting for the land and house. Does he have the right to fight for it. Land is an inheritance from her parents and the house she paid after her divorce. She paid the taxes until her death and after her death he started paying them. Do her children have a right to fight for what is there’s.

    • I am sorry for your husband’s situation. I can’t give any information or advice however as I am not licensed in Texas. He should be working with a Texas attorney who is knowledgeable in probate, litigation and real estate succession under the laws of the state of Texas. Good luck to you all.

  27. My father passed away leaving behind a pension life insurance and a jointly owned home with his wife he has one child with her and my sister and I from a previous marriage. Are we the children entitled to any of this? We are in NJ

  28. My question is my husband and I divorced 2 years ago we have 2 children both of age. He had a lawsuit against workers comp that he filed after our divorce and before he remarried. Are my children entitled to any of this as he left no will? Can I still receive back child support that was already court ordered to be paid out of the settlement? His widowed wife is running around telling everyone how she will be receiving 200 thousand for it of course she is also be investigated for his death . Do my kids have to file anything? We cant be sure she is telling the truth?

    • Your children should get legal advice as to their rights. Additionally, you should get specific legal advice regarding any ability you may have to collect from his estate for child support. A lot will depend on the laws of your state and what your divorce decree states and whether or not he had a will. You should not delay in getting this advice as most states have time limits on the ability to make a claim. Good Luck.

  29. my husband died 8 yrs ago without a will he had a house he bought before we were married my attorney has not finished up the case what can i do to make him finish up the estate can i send him a certified letter demanding that he finish i live in california

    • Brenda – I am sorry for your situation. Yes you can certainly send him a certified letter. You can call his office to demand information and forwrd movement. AND you are free to fire him and hire a new attorney. You are never stuck with an attorney. Good luck to you. Jen

  30. Father died unexpectedly at home after surgery, he held stock in a currently private space company in which the owner is buying back as much as employees will sell at a set price. It is one of the most anticipated IPOs. Who is entitled to these stocks if they were solely in his name? Wife & 3 Adult Children remain. Thanks.

    • I am sorry for your loss. You should get specific legal advice from an estate litigation attorney in the jurisdiction where your father lived when he passed away. Good luck.

  31. So my Dad just passed away in November here in South Carolina. He was born and raised and lived many years in California. He worked for a company in California for 25 years and was a member of the union. during that time period my mom divorced my dad which was right around 1985. He worked for the company for another 9 years or so. I believe that he has a pension plan with them, however the company was not very forthcoming with the information about whether he had a plan or what. I know that he was not receiving any benefit from it if he did have an active pension with them. My question is would that pension be given to me and my brother or would it go to my Mom?

    • I am sorry for your loss. The answer is it depends. You should seek specific legal advice from an estate litigation attorney in the county where your father and mother lived at the time of their divorce. Good luck

  32. What if my name only is on the house and I am separated, I have one child by a prior marriage and I bought the house before I remarried, who would get the house.

    • You should seek legal advice from an attorney in your area. If you are contemplating divorce then you should consult with an attorney who practices family law.

  33. sarah e frederick says

    Hi my dad passed this feb leaving 5 kids a mobile home a newer truck thousands in guns and no will i just found out my sister one of which resided with dad when passed went and put title to home and guns in her name..what can i do? I dont want to loose the home or put family on streets but she refuses to put anyone else on title and thats not right iam in la county

    • I am sorry for your loss. You should consult with an estate litigator in the state in which your father passed away. Who is entitled to benefit will depend on how the assets were titled. AND if these assets were only in your father’s name and if he didn’t have a will or trust then who benefits will be determined by the laws of the state in which he was a resident. Good luck.

  34. hello.. ok here is my situation.. my father and i signed a purchase agreement as buyer and co buyer. however the title to the house does not reflect my name. well my father has passed away and never had a will. with me being the co buyer on the purchase agreement, am i entilted to the house?

    • I am sorry for your loss. The answer will depend on many facts. One of the most important facts is where is the property -as each state has jurisdiction over the real estate in its borders. Here in CA title to property is presumptive of who the true owner is – but that presumption may be able to be overcome by facts. You should consult with an real estate attorney in the geographical area of where the property is located. They may need to coordinate with a probate attorney. Good Luck.

  35. Sale davis says

    Hello my father is dying from cancer he divorced my mother in Mexico in which they was married. He has since remarried and put his new wife name on his property and have several cars in his name don’t know if it’s in her name as well. I’m one of his 6 children are we entitled to anything if there isn’t a will. He also told a family members that he will leave the home to his kids.

  36. what happens if I live in California a community property state and my spouse were to pass with the existence of a pre-nup agreement signed on our wedding day. How would our sole and separate property be allocated if no will or trust. We have one minor child.

    • In order to answer your question the documents would need to be reviewed. Every situation really depends on the specific facts and how things are titled, etc. I recommend you consult with an attorney you is well versed in probate, family law and litigation. Good luck

  37. Terri Miller says

    Man dies in Idaho- no apparent will. He has one adult son living elsewhere. Man owned land w deed in just his name with some vehicles also registered to him. Some relatives have already removed things from his property- law enforcement refuses to intervene- its a very small rural area.
    Son wants to step in now as rightful heir but realizes this will go into probate. Does he need to consider hiring probate lawyer and can you tell me how long these court cases take if uncontested? Anything else son should do?

  38. I have a general question and I know that laws vary in every state…I live in WV. My sister just passed and she has two sons. One son has lived with her since birth. He is 31 now. Her and her husband divorced 3 years ago and in the divorce papers, she was given the house. Will there be any way the ex-husband can come and try to take the house away from the son? She never had the title/deed changed, all she has is the divorce papers.

    • Nancy – I am sorry for your loss. I can’t give specific legal advice without seeing the relevant documents. Further the laws of the state your sister was a resident of would control and I am only licensed in CA. Your nephews should get specific legal advice from a knowledgeable probate attorney in the state where their mother died. They should do so as soon as they can. Good luck

  39. Denise Wilson says

    My mom died 18 years ago and had no will. Her house is paid for but I pay the taxes on it. I am paying a higher tax because they say this is my second home but the house is still in my mothers name. Is this correct, I live in SC. Thank you for your help

    • Denise I am sorry for your loss. I am not licensed in SC only in CA. You should seek legal advice from a probate attorney in the jurisdiction where the property is. Good luck

  40. I am trying to find some information for a friend. His mother died and her mortgage was left in her name only without a Will. Her husband I understand did not want the house, so the responsibilities was left to my friend. The mortgage company will not let my friend make payments on the mortgage. He knows he needs to talk to an attorney, but are there steps he is able to take without talking to an attorney to be able to begin making payments on the home mortgage himself?

    • Aaron – I am sorry for your friend’s situation. He should make the payments and he should seek appropriate specific legal advice in the jurisdiction where the house is. Good luck

  41. Lisa Moggo says

    My dad passed away in December. He had no will or spouse. He has 5 kids, 3 adult children and 2 minor children. He lived in Michigan. We were told that the minor children get the first $64,000 is this correct? I have researched it and can’t find any where that says that. Thank you

    • Lisa I am sorry for your loss. I am not licensed in Michigan and do not know the laws of intestate succession there. You should consult with a probate attorney in the jurisdiction that your father resided. Good luck to you all

  42. I father passed away and did not have a will, we live in Texas. My parents were married for over 50 years. I want to be sure that when my mother makes her will out will it be legal to include my fathers things too, or do my sister and I have to sign over any rights we have to the estate to my mother first