If you die without a Will, the result is largely controlled by the state where you resided at the time of your death. However, if you own real property, the state in which that real property is located will control its disposition.
I should also note that most personal property has no title document associated with it, so it is important that family members secure the decedent’s personal property as soon as they learn of the death. Otherwise, valuable personal property may disappear before the rightful owner finds it.
It is also important to note that even though Uncle Harry told you and the entire family many times that his valuable coin collection was to be yours when he dies, if Uncle Harry was a resident of Texas and died without a valid Will, his property will be distributed to his heirs as determined by Texas law. That law doesn’t take into account Uncle Harry’s wishes. Depending on Uncle Harry’s situation, you may very well not receive that coin collection … or anything else from Uncle Harry’s estate.
So, without that Will, the State of Texas handles the distribution of Uncle Harry’s estate in a variety of ways.
You would think that if you are married and die without a Will, that your spouse inherits your entire estate. That may not always be the case. The division of property at that point is dependent on whether it is community or separate property.
Community property refers to most property owned by married people and acquired during marriage. If you are survived by a spouse and children, your surviving spouse in most cases will receive the community property if all your children are also of your surviving spouse. But if you have children from someone other than your surviving spouse, your children will receive your half of the community property while your spouse will only retain their own half.
Separate property is typically property acquired before marriage. It can also be property acquired during marriage by gift or inheritance. If your property is characterized as separate and you have a surviving spouse and children, your spouse could receive 1/3 of your separate property and a life estate. A life estate is an estate limited in duration by life. In other words, they would have the right to use your separate property until his or her own death. If you are survived by parents and siblings, they can receive half of your half of your separate property, while the other half could go to your spouse. However, if you have no children or other descendants, your surviving spouse is usually entitled to all your separate property.
In a future post I’ll look at the situation if Uncle Harry is single when he dies, and some special circumstances.