A last will and testament is a legal document that provides for how a person’s estate is to be distributed after death. The will is one of the most basic of all estate-planning documents for all adults. Even those who do not have millions of dollars or acres of property will benefit from having a will in place. When someone dies without a will, Washington state laws take over and determine the distribution of property and assets. Someone who dies without a will is said to die “intestate.”
What Does Intestacy Mean?
Intestate simply means without a will. When a person passes away, loved ones cannot simply take items that they want. Instead, they must follow the law. Intestacy laws are in place to provide instructions for the way that property must be distributed after the death of someone when there is no will. A person’s property may not necessarily be passed on to those whom the person prefers. Instead, the assets are given to those who are the legal heirs, according to intestacy laws.
What are Intestacy Laws in Washington?
It is important to understand what happens when there is no will. When someone dies intestate, the intestacy statute of Washington takes over. The statute basically provides instructions for the distribution of property just as a will would do. However, because someone did not have a will in place when they died, the law takes over and provides for the distribution of the person’s assets. Heirs and others who have an interest in the person’s estate may not necessarily agree with the distribution as provided for in the law.
Washington intestacy law applies differently to those who have a spouse at the time of death and those who do not.
If the decedent has a living spouse, the spouse is entitled to all marital or community property.
Separate property is to be divided between the spouse and the decedent’s children and/or other descendants.
When there are no children or other descendants, the spouse will get all of the separate property.
When the descendant does not have a spouse, the law provides for distribution as follows:
The descendant’s children, including adopted children
If there are no children, the decedent's parents will receive the property
If the descendant has no living parents, the children of the descendant’s parents will receive the inheritance. (including siblings and half-siblings of the descendant)
If there are no siblings or half-siblings, the descendant’s grandparents are to receive the property. (distributed equally between both mother and father’s parents.
If no grandparents are alive, the grandparent’s descendants will receive the property. (generally, this means the cousins of the deceased)
Importantly, if there are no descendants, the property reverts to the state. This is based on RCW 11.08.140, escheat for want of heirs. This law is based on old English and common laws adopted over time in the United States.
Probate is Required
Probate is not necessary in Washington in many situations but is required when someone dies without a will. Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate after their death. Probate without a will is different from probate with a will. Intestate probate generally includes the appointment of an administrator by the court. The administrator oversees the probate process and handles the issues regarding the financial matters of the deceased. Before assets can be distributed, the debts must first be paid.
The court-appointed administrator of the estate must inventory and determine assets and property. Part of the probate process is to determine and locate the legal heirs. The heirs, when there is no will, are determined by the intestate laws. The court must take steps to locate the rightful heirs in a timely manner. Sometimes, the heirs are easy to locate, such as when the decedent is married. Other times, the process may be more complicated.
Benefits of Having a Will
There are many benefits to having a will in place. A will provides you with the ability to name the beneficiaries that you prefer. This is one of the most important reasons to have a will. When you have a complex family, a will is helpful in naming those with whom you wish to leave your property. Without a will, you would not be able to leave specific property to individuals who are not part of the legal beneficiaries listed through intestacy laws.
Without a will, your property and assets may end up going to some people who you do not wish to inherit your assets. For example, you may be in a serious relationship with your partner, but he or she would not be entitled to your property upon your death because you are not married. In another example, if you and your spouse are no longer a couple but are not yet divorced, your property will go to your spouse through intestacy laws if you don’t have a will in place.
Help With Estate Planning and Probate
An estate plan is an ideal way to ensure that your assets and property will transfer to the beneficiaries that you name. Although you are not required to have a lawyer for probate, an attorney will greatly help with the process. If a loved one dies without a will, it is even more important to seek guidance from a lawyer. Your attorney will help protect your interests and make sure that the probate process is completed properly. Your attorney can be instrumental in assisting with the resolution of disputes that may occur during probate. A lawyer can also help if you need to contest a will.
It is helpful to discuss the matter with a lawyer to learn about intestacy and what to expect when your loved one dies without a will. Your lawyer will explain the process and guide you through probate as well as assist with resolving questions and concerns.
The death of a loved one is never easy, but it can be particularly difficult when someone dies without a will. A probate attorney will help with the process and relieve you of some of the stress of the situation. Whether you need to create a will or estate plan or want guidance through the probate process, we are here to help. Contact us today at View Ridge Family Law & Estate Planning at (206) 502-4748 to schedule a consultation.