According to a 2016 poll, only about 40% of American adults have a will prepared. Americans without a will might assume that by not naming any beneficiaries directly, those closest to them at the time of their death will be allowed to to determine the distribution of their assets.
Unfortunately, that is not the case.
What happens when someone dies without a will?
When a person dies without a will, the state classifies their estate as “intestate.” Pennsylvania’s General Assembly details the state’s guidelines for intestate succession in the state’s legislation. The law says that the surviving spouse of someone who dies intestate stands to inherit the entire estate, if the deceased does not have any surviving heirs.
If the deceased does have surviving heirs and those heirs are not the spouse’s heirs as well, then the spouse’s interest reduces to one-half of the estate’s total value. If the deceased’s heirs are the same heirs as the spouse’s, or if the deceased left behind surviving parents, then the first $30,000 worth of assets goes to the spouse, while the interest remains the same.
If there is no surviving spouse, then the deceased’s estate passes first to any children, then to surviving parents, and then to any siblings or next of kin.
Benefitting non-relatives through an inheritance
While an intestate estate might eventually end up in the hands of the right people, it cannot be passed onto a non-relative. In order to allow a close friend or a charity to benefit from an estate, the terms need to be laid out directly within a will.